So this weekend I should be running The Montane Cheviot Goat, I’ve been excited about this for a long time now – probably about 3 years since I first entered it but was injured in the run up and so did not start the race in 2018.
I entered again only for the pandemic to delay the start several times and so we come to Wednesday, today, two days before I need to leave home and drive down to Northumberland and begin a race I have long admired.
Here’s the rub though, there are issues, positives and negatives. What do I do?
This is a race that I have long wanted to run.
The organisers have pulled out all the stops to make sure the event goes ahead after storm Arwen.
Running and racing in winter is one of my favourite things to do.
I get to use all the new gear I have bought for this event.
I get out of going to my daughters piano recital.
I get to link up with the likes of the awesome Ian Braizer and Kate Allen.
It’s another opportunity to race.
My hip flexor and abductor are fucked.
After my foot injury in the Peak District two weeks ago I have not run since.
Covid and its variants are on the rise.
Storm Arwen damage may make it more challenging both on the day and logistically for all concerned.
I am navigationally challenged.
I was advised by the doctor who looked at my foot 2 weeks ago that I need 6-8 weeks of rest from running for reasons I’m not allowed to publish in case the GingaNinja reads this. The doctor did confirm though that I didn’t fracture my foot as this would have made me an immediate DNS.
Being fucked off by the White Peaks 50km has left me in a bit of a funk about running.
There is the fear of a Goat DNF.
I haven’t run an overnight race in about 3 years.
I’m not a very good driver and fear being caught and stranded in snow with nothing but a shitload of chocolate for company.
I’m not worried about the weather or the underfoot conditions or anything like that I worry about not being able to finish or being the stupid bastard that needs the mountain rescue. In fairness to myself I’ve got good mountain skills for the most part, save for being a bit navigationally challenged (though I’ve bought a Garmin Etrex as back up to my Fenix 6X to help with that) and I can read a map to a point.
I’m more concerned about my hip flexor injury and my foot both of which may make a finish unlikely but its a proper trail race and my hip flexors stand up to trail better than they do tarmac and so maybe that might mitigate the problem enough to get me round. The foot though is an unknown that might rear its ugly mug or not show up at all.
Maybe I’m worried about nothing but the question remains ‘to Goat or not to Goat’?
Have you ever looked at a bar of chocolate and thought that looks amazing?
It’d be oozing caramel chunks, little flakes poking from the sides and then you taste it and you realise it’s a giant turd you’ve just bitten into but you’ve got to keep going because you’re in polite company and don’t want to miss out on the thing that everyone else is devouring. Welcome to my review of the Ultra Scotland 50!
I should at this point mention that the metaphor suggests I didn’t enjoy the race but the truth is very different – I very much enjoyed this like chocolate but also endured the race like a tough as buggery turd, but we’ll get to that later.
I suppose this is very much a tale of the pandemic and so that’s where it begins.
I, like lots of others, in 2019 eagerly entered our 2020 races assuming that we would once more spend the year running around beautiful trails and the occasional bit of cruddy car park. When 2020 came around I found that I wasn’t in the best place either injury, fitness or weight wise and I trudged my way through the mutually awesome Tyndrum 24 and Falkirk Trail Ultra, I then missed the inaugural F50K because of my grandmother dropping dead but figured with a race calendar full to brimming it would be fine. At the start of April I’d start my Ranger Ultras Grandslam and that would swiftly be followed by the Ultra Scotland 50 from GB Ultras.
I think we all know what happened nstead and races became consigned to the dustbin, albeit on a temporary basis.
And so when offered the chance to run the Ultra Scotland 50 as my first race of 2021, mere days after the latest lockdown ended, I knew I had to be on the start line whatever my condition.
As I stood at the side of Clatteringshaws Loch, watching the beautiful stars twinkling in the dark skies park with Rona at my side, a cup of tea in hand and I was listening to the man outside his motorhome playing bagpipes truly beautifully, I realised that I am a very fortunate person who was being presented with another awesome opportunity and I would not waste it.
The various lockdowns have meant that I’ve been able to focus on some of the key problems I’ve had when I’m running – so I’ve dropped more than 20kg in weight, I’ve returned to active, focused training and I’ve mostly been injury free and this triple gave my decent confidence as 2021 arrived. It was therefore with great dismay that despite my desire to race as I stood looking at those stars that my hamstring hurt like an absolute shit and I’d been struggling with it for over a month.
Typically, the moment there’s a race opportunity and my body decides to send me to a start line hampered.
However, as I gulped down the last of my tea I knew that my hamstring wasn’t going to deter me from leaving the Loch side in about 8hrs and set off from St John’s Town of Dalry and try and reach Moffat, a mere 56 miles away.
Rona, the motorhome, afforded me a nights peaceful and relatively luxurious sleep and when I got up the following morning I was able to get ready close to the race start with the benefit of my own toilet. For those who aren’t regular readers then you should be aware that my pre-race poo ritual is a well established marker in my race preparation and should not be disturbed. Milkshake, milky coffee, poo time – it’s simple and effective and reduces the need for me to spend half a race looking for a place that a) nobody will see me drop a turd and b) find a place to bury said turd.
What I can tell you is that, despite following the ritual, very little happened in the bowel department and this was next worry of the day but I just assumed I’d be going ‘full bear’ and making a mighty mound somewhere on the Southern Upland Way.
Having read the Covid guidelines for the race and watched the video from the organisers I felt quite confident that I was turning up ready to race and arriving ‘just in time’. The race start was very well organised, in covid terms and despite the mildly wet weather most runners were managing to stay dry and knew what to do in preparation for the start line.
We ambled into the registration point, in race number order, which I felt was rather cute, were given a few course correction notes as we entered and then were processed
Bag drop (I had chosen not to bother)
Queue up for race start
All very easy, all very seamless – you’d have thought that GB Ultras had done it like this a thousand times – I was actually quite impressed.
The thing that was less impressive, and is no fault of the organisers, was the muted start.
Covid guidelines meant we were sent out one runner at a time in 15 second intervals and although practical did take away from the atmosphere. That said because the start line was located in a town it meant that there were people lingering around, including friends and family who cheered runners on which provided an improvement over the covid start line of Ultra North (my only comparison).
Anyway pretty much bang on the money of 6.07am I set off from the town and headed on the first of many uphills, waving goodbye to ASKadventurer and the GingaNinja knowing that it might be as much as 18hrs before I saw them again.
As I rolled out of Dalry I could immediately feel my hamstring but I was determined that I wouldn’t resort to using running poles unless I had no other choice and so I pushed on enjoying the early delights of the Southern Upland Way.
Despite the Covid guidelines it was still very likely you’d meet other runners on the route and as we entered the trail, after less than a kilometre of running, I came across my first major runchat opportunity – Patrick (first time organised ultra runner) and Alistair (seasoned mountain goat he looked like). We bimbled along, with me mostly bemoaning Falkirk’s lack of mountains to train on and they in good spirits. The trails were fun and fast but with less than 4km on the clock I made a huge mistake jumping on a bridge and sliding straight off it and landing on the edge – cracking my hip, leg and back in the process – this was not a good start. Although I leaped back up quickly I had to let me running colleagues slowly disappear into the distance as I needed to let the wind fill my sails once more.
I was shaken by the fall but mostly alright and I managed to pick myself up enough to start picking up the pace but there was pain in my knee on my already bad leg and I’d clearly hurt my shoulder as that was now acting like a dick. Thankfully I had a wonderful course to distract me and I was provided non-stop entertainment by the sheep bleeting at me as I ran and being the fool I am I chose to converse with the sheep whenever they were in range.
Heading downhill I could now see the 8 mile point and watched as it drew ever closer, the thing was I hadn’t yet touched my water supply, nor my food and so with little more than a nod and wink (with my mask on of course) I simply ran through and stopped a little way up the road to adjust myself and stow my face covering.
The adjustment was necessary as the fall had left a painful reminder on my shoulder and I found myself regularly readjusting my pack to try and reduce the pain on the injury but nothing worked.
Therefore with a gob full of kinder chocolate I began the real assault of the Southern Upland Way and from here it really felt like a proper trail race and with 15 or 16 miles until the next checkpoint across some tough ground this was going to be an interesting test of my body.
What I was still working out was how the breadcrumb mapping trail works on my Fenix 6X because despite following the signage it was saying I was off course… how the sweet arseholes could I be off course? I was following the map! The thing was I was heading up a hill with no path and no clear way forward – I was clearly off route and then I turned around and saw two runners heading in a different direction and I hastily headed towards them. Down I strode through the rough undergrowth and spilled my way back into the path – another knee trembler of a mistake, how many more of them was I going to make today?
I was a little bemused as to why neither of the two runners just a few feet ahead of me had issued a warning of my impending stupidity but maybe that’s just something I do when I see a fellow competitor about to do something navigationally erroneous. But ho-hum I was back on track now and heading towards the first big climb of the course.
The route here was overgrown and very green and a real delight, the trail wound upwards and onwards and as you climbed a little higher the temperature dropped despite the morning getting brighter.
Why was it getting chillier you might ask? Well that was simple – there was snow underfoot to chill your hard working and burning feet.
Having recently dropped my second layer of socks I could feel the cold through my Lone Peaks but it was a lovely sensation and it wasn’t very thick and therefore nice and easy to run through. On I ran and picked my way through the gently rolling hills and the short sharp ascents but all the while knowing that there were some significant spikes to come.
It was here that I came across Wayne Drinkwater, the race director and what a very welcoming sight he was and also a pleasant surprise as we had a bit of banter and he pointed the dreaded GoPro at me. I did ask that if I said horrific things about companies like Glaxo and GE would he not be able to use the footage? Thanks to Sue Perkins for that little tip.
I passed Wayne and pushed on up the hill and noting runners behind me, it was a steep but wholly achievable climb and in the distance I could see one of the key markers on the course, a large stone arch overlooking the Southern Upland Way. Obviously I stopped to grab a few pictures and the like and then set off down the path off Benbrack.
After a few minutes the path started to disappear and so I veered off to the fence line to see if that was likely to hand me a clue as to the direction I was supposed to be on. The Fenix 6X map was also about as much use as a chocolate teapot – simply saying ‘off course’. Over the top of the hill I had descended I saw two runners and scrambled across to meet them. Kirsty and Christophe seemed in good, but equally lost, spirits and between us we figured out a direction and once more headed off.
Down and down and down and down we went, heading towards what looked like the tree line on the map.
‘Ring, ring’ went Kirsty’s phone and it was race HQ to tell us we had fucked up big time. Bottom of hill – go back to the top, find the arch and start over. Another mistake that would lead to jelly legs but the three of us powered up the hill and retraced our steps. When we arrived we had clearly all been distracted by the sculptural arch at the summit and wholly ignored the way marker – now corrected we thundered downward in completely the opposite but correct direction.
Kirsty was a bit of a powerhouse and looked incredible as she bounded across the route and Christophe reminded me of all those tall French runners who would tower over me as I straddled the start line of the SainteLyon, it was quite comforting to be in their company. However, their pace was outstripping mine quite significantly and I was forced to say goodbye too quickly.
Thankfully I enjoy a little solitude during a race and the route wound it’s way through the hills and provided glorious views and well worn trails, I was probably alone for a good couple of hours before I came across a fence. ‘Hello fence’ I thought.
Through the fence I could see the next southern upland way markers but couldn’t reach it. I had a choice, follow the fence line low or follow it high. If my decision was incorrect it would be a long way back.
Time ticking, decision time, come on Ultraboyruns.
I chose high, assuming that if I messed up I would have less climb to correct and then I was off, soon regretting my choice between a wire fence and a dry stone wall with barely enough to squeeze through even the most snake hipped runner.
This ‘path’, I use that term loosely, was hard going with near non stop up and down and surrounded by construction work but the map said roughly ‘yes’ and I could see another marker but as I came to the top I’d lost all sight of the markers, I was lost.
Retreat or amble around looking for directions? Well I did both until I felt my Garmin shaking telling me my phone was ringing.
‘Let me guess I’m off course,’ I said as the GB Ultras team said hello. They told me that I and others were off course and they advised how I could correct it. I said I understood but I didn’t really and I just headed back – jumping walls and wooden pallets and fences in the process hoping that I could correct my direction with relative ease.
Thankfully just when I was about to say ‘fuck this for a game of golf’ I saw other equally lost runners, I think it was Dave, Michelle (more on Michelle later) with Kieran (more on Kieran later) and Nick (more on Nick later) – sorry Dave (but I did like your spectacles/goggles). We were all either going the wrong way or about to and after introductions were completed and we had bemoaned our lack of good fortune, having all done extra distance, we caught a break – a sign for the Southern Upland Way.
It’s things like this that could turn an atheist into a believer… actually no but you get the idea.
A convey of runners is always a slightly odd thing and this one split itself into little micro-pockets of covid-secure groups which moved fluidly between one another.
For the most part I found myself with Nick (looking forward to that YouTube channel fella), a truly spectacular dude with a big positive outlook on life, we chewed the fat extensively, as you do and he explained that he had entered the 215 mile GB Ultras Race Across Scotland.
Over the course of the next couple of hours I could clearly see that he had all the attributes needed to complete such an effort – his hill climbing was fast and furious even without poles and his general pace kept me going at a reasonable speed for all the time we were together.
We arrived into checkpoint two at Sanquhar together and were greeted by Nicks other half, the GingaNinja, my little Satan and our respective dogs.
At nearly a marathon in we both needed to refuel and we did so in the Covid secure hall. Chocolate (Mars and Snickers), cake (delicious and I believe homemade) and a belly full of cola were on my menu followed by a resetting of my race kit. I did dump a couple of items on the GingaNinja such as my water filter and waterproof trousers – neither of which it looked like I would require and I stuffed my waterproof jacket away properly to balance my pack better and then, after thanking the awesome GB Ultras team I was off, hunting down Nick in the process.
The first half had been quite eventful in terms of navigation, injury and pain management but it had also been filled with really beautiful trail running and as the day wore on I hoped for more of the latter and less of the former.
The good news was that the next two sections were relatively short at just 8 and 6 miles or so and I should be able to make up a bit of time here. Nick and I continued our jibber jabbering, much I am sure, to the annoyance of anyone else within earshot but that’s the thing about these races you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to get through.
In the early stages of the climb out of checkpoint two Nick, myself and now Kieran came across a complete sheep’s skull and it was with some great surprise that Nick picked it up and attached it to his race vest. I’ve done some batshit stuff in my time and collected stuff off the trail but never a sheep’s head and certainly not while in a race! It was here that Nick also started pulling away and much as I tried to keep up I had to slow down a touch.
Slowing down isn’t always a bad thing though and it gave me an opportunity to soak in the route which in terms of its look had changed. The earlier stages seemed more confined and tighter trails but these seemed to have been replaced by large swathes of rolling hills and all around us was a sea of green. I was very much enjoying the scenery and Kieran had become my new running partner and we ambled along as briskly as our little bodies would carry us.
Kieran was aiming for a GB Ultras 50 mile Grandslam in his 50th year – although delayed due to Covid 19. If my recollection is correction he’s already got L2M done and was now north of the border taking on the Ultra Scotland 50, and much like me, delighting in the surrounds.
We chatted for hours about all things, from races to politics to family and everything in between – it was easy chatter and quite delightful.
It was early into my time with Kieran that I welcomed my biggest issue of the race though – an inability to move downhill if the there was any level of steepness. Holy turd there was a horrific burning in my knee and ITB with every single step downhill and running it off wasn’t really an option.
If I thought the fall had been bad or my hamstring had been shit, it was a truth that neither of these had anything on the excruciating pain I was in now. I mean I must really have pissed someone off to have this much go wrong.
In my head I looked over the remaining elevation and realised that there was still a significant amount of climbing to do, which meant a significant amount downhill and while the magnificence of the hills was a truly beautiful sight, my legs cursed them for being there.
The odd thing was that my uphill movement was actually pretty good despite everything and so I would set the pace uphill and Kieran was setting it in the down.
I was surprised that we managed to reach checkpoint 3 still at the head of the little group of runners that had all met about 10 miles back but there was nobody very far behind and I’m sure that as they came down from the hills and into the old mining town they’d have been impressed by beautiful summit ahead of them and the chocolate box town to our right.
As we approached the village one of the volunteers laughed with us a bit and gave us cheery advice about the next section – cheery I think because she wasn’t running it! The GingaNinja and ASK were also at the village just before the checkpoint and gave both of us cheers and waves before leaving us to find solace in some serious checkpoint chow down!
Checkpoint 3 would be our last significant stop, as the final checkpoint was in a lay-by, and so we made sure we took what we needed here. Kieran used the time to deal with an ever expanding foot (don’t ask, he didn’t) and some blistering and I did my best efforts at amusing the volunteers.
We didn’t stop long as other runners were making their way in and it seemed sensible to avoid creating a Covid hotspot at the checkpoint and forcing the awesome volunteers to move us on!
The next challenge was a nice, seemingly never ending and mildly dull climb – punctured only by the tarmac that looped through it several times. It was here I first noticed the cold and that our speed had dropped a bit. Although I was pressing hard I wanted to keep sight of my companion as I knew that both of us stood a better chance of finishing together than we did alone – this though had the effect of chilling me and as we arrived at a bit of a peak and a little mountain bothy I considered layering up. What stopped me though was a look at the time and Garmin’s estimated time of arrival – I relayed the bad news to Kieran and then set to work increasing our pace.
However, even as the clock ticked down both of us stopped to draw breath and capture some images of the sun going down over the hills because it’s moments like this that we run ultra marathons for.
But tick tock, it’s about 6 o’ fucking clock and we need to get a move on! And we did, Kieran increased his pace on the uphill and I swallowed the pain and went as quickly as I could on the downhill. This section though was full of steep, difficult terrain and I found myself using every expletive known to man and creating a few new ones along the way. I found myself apologising several times for my rather fruity language but Kieran simply shrugged it off and was hopefully not offended by my potty mouthed antics.
There was a lot less chatter now – partly due to being about 10 metres apart but also because of a need to concentrate – with time against us we had little capacity for further error. Then the route hit us with a series of difficult and slow going ascents and descents. In conventional circumstances you’d have laughed them off, enjoyed bouncing up and down them, but, on a day like today they felt cruel and unnecessary. We battered up and down, never quite losing hope that a friendly checkpoint smile awaited us.
We could see the road to our left as it wound its way through the hills and assumed that we would be heading down there to find some much needed respite because in front of us now loomed a large, steep climb, Kieran and I clearly had fingers crossed but as we closed on both the turn to the road and the steep ascent we were fired up the ascent. Our creaking bones and cracking optimism were pained by this latest news but ascend we did and with a little pool of runners now below us.
I was in no mood to be beaten to the next checkpoint though and I think Michelle and Dave were both in this little group that was around us and we may have had a bit of banter to try and boost moral – but moral seemed low and we needed that checkpoint. I remember reaching the top of the summit and noting that the checkpoint would surely be down there.
To improve my mentality I set to thinking about the spectacular borderlands that were laid out before us were and how they were probably oft missed by visitors – on another day, were I wasn’t chasing a clock, I’d very much enjoy a jaunt along the Southern Upland Way and it’s surrounds.
Kieran and I made it to the road and while he strode purposefully towards the checkpoint I felt like giving my legs a little shakedown and ran up towards the final checkpoint to devour as many of the little cakes as I could.
Here I found myself in surrealist territory as I asked questions like, ‘if Linford Christie was half a teapot which half would be the teapot – top or bottom?’ I believe I may have confused or befuddled the lovely volunteers but then I was 40+ miles into my first race in ages and my biggest distance and biggest elevation since last September – I was probably delirious.
Kieran rocked up a minute or two behind me and filled up on water and then we were off to the finish. 14 miles left but only about 5hrs to go until we had extinguished all of the allocated time.
Invigorated by reaching the last checkpoint we pushed on hard, assuming that most of the elevation had been dealt with, therefore it came as something a blow to realise that there was enough elevation in the final section to slow us down and that our efforts to push were being hampered by both the course and our exhaustion. Add into the mix that darkness would also soon be upon us and I made the decision to stop briefly and put on my waterproof jacket to protect me from the wind and also to grab my head torch. With this done we ploughed on and straight into a lovely big boggy section of trail that permeated straight through the Lone Peak 4.0 that had served me so well.
My feet felt cold for the first time since the climb up Benbrack and it would be a couple of minutes before my awesome Drymax socks warmed my feet again.
Chatter was now reduced to the minimum, I was doing the mental maths and calculating my likelihood of failing and being determined not too. Kieran, for his part remained on ‘team get to the finish’ and knew what needed to be done to claim a medal.
Up and down the course went with Scotland beautifully illuminated by the dancing darkness in front of us and the couple of twinkling headlights. In darkness this was lovely but by day I suspected this would be fantastic and much more reminiscent of the route in the first few miles of the race.
We knew that every step was a step closer to home – Kieran had salted caramel chocolate milkshake awaiting him at the B&B, I had a walk to find my motorhome wherever it was hidden! Ha – how different our post race experiences would be!
Before either of us got to an after the race situation we had more work to do.
Darkness had now surrounded us completely and even with less than 10km to go there was no sign of Moffat in the distance and time was ebbing away, we hurried through mostly good, hard packed trail and followed the way markers home – that was until Kieran had a dose of the batshit and thought we were going the wrong way.
I should have ignored him as the signage was pointing the way I had headed but I was also nervous of making another mistake with so little time available. We therefore doubled back and retreated to the last way marker and Kieran went thrashing about in the undergrowth looking for a way through. Two runners managed to catch us again in the time that we had spent doubling back and searching for an alternative route and as they headed off in the original direction I called out to my comrade that, ‘it’s this way, let’s crack on’. Kieran seemed rather trapped in the undergrowth but after a couple of minutes he fumbled his way back and we were off again and in hot pursuit of the couple ahead of us.
We made swift progress in hunting down the runners ahead and once we crossed paths again we travelled together to make this final push that bit more enjoyable. Martin and Nicola were relatively new to ultra running but they looked mostly strong despite a tough day (I understood that) and were from Berkshire, an area I know very well having run several races in the region.
Once more chat consumed us but we were driving forward with purpose. I found myself chatting with Nicola, while Martin and Kieran took up the rear but we ended up starting to separate a little and after so long together I wasn’t keen on leaving Kieran.
I always feel a sense of togetherness when you’ve come so far with a person or people and I genuinely looked forward to getting through this together.
Mere moments after the couple had departed we found civilisation again, tarmac, roads, lights, life. My spirits immediately lifted – we must have made it? but the watch still said 4km.
Surely it must be wrong? It wasn’t wrong.
I found myself waddling along as quickly as I could trying desperately to finish but also trying desperately not to release the shit I’d needed for the last 10 miles, this would be the final ignominy – shitting myself on the side of the road just a mile or so from the end.
I wonder what it says about me that I’d put a medal shaped piece of metal ahead of my bowel health in terms of life importance? Still no time to think about my poo or question my life choices because a support vehicle broke the thoughts of my introspection
The vehicle pulled up alongside us and I did wonder if we were being timed out but Wayne simply checked we were all okay. Well the answer to that was no, I did for a moment consider asking for a lift and a load of bog roll, but I’d worked too hard to give up now so bollocks to that and we replied, ‘yeah, all good’.
The road to Moffat seemed to take forever and again seemed a little cruel, having already travelled much more than the 50 miles of the race title and more than the 56 miles offered in the race description. At this point we picked up another runner who had been round the houses in terms of going in the wrong direction, Mark (may have gotten your name wrong, it was a long day) despite this he remained intensely jolly and I feel he helped make this last stretch seem that little bit less agonising.
But when we arrived into Moffat and the town square there was no immediate sign of the finish, our exhausted brains couldn’t see the thing we needed, a sign, a person, a marker – we found ourselves hunting round the town square and then I saw the bus that would be headed back to Dalry. I ran through the town and asked the driver if he knew where the finish was but he didn’t, thankfully one of the members of the bus did and they showed me on their phone but as I turned to race it in the RD rolled up with a grin on his face. ‘I’ll take you down’ he said.
I was relieved – though my ever gurgling bowels were at the point of collapse!
We ambled through the town and Wayne asked if fancied running it in as we closed on the finish line and of course I’m such a sucker that’s my feet rose and sprinted those last few hundred metres, in fact I was going so fast that I overshot the finish line and had to double back. What a numpty.
At the finish line was Kieran and a few others collecting their medals and without much fuss it was all over.
I was relieved to have survived but survive I did and just in time.
Distance: 56+ miles
Ascent: 2800 metres
Date: May 2021
Location: St John’s Town of Dalry
Tough Rating: 3/5
Route I’ve often driven the M74 and wondered, ‘what are those hills? They look fun, one day I’ll go and run amongst them.’ Well GB Ultras helped my achieve an ambition and the route for the most part did not disappoint. There was a really good mix of scenery to keep you entertained and it was often breathtakingly beautiful – reminding me a little of The Pentlands but without the monotony of their nearby sibling.
The little villages that we came across on the route served as excellent stopping points and often reminded me of those little chocolate box towns that you only get in places like the Cotswold or the Highlands. These border locations really are a treasure that deserve a greater degree of exploration by those visiting Scotland.
I really appreciated that the race route was mostly trail – sometimes a race can be described as trail but with have large swathes of the route on tarmac, but not here. The Southern Upland Way offers a route directly through and mostly over Scotland’s greenery and the race is all the better for that.
Perhaps that is the benefit of being run on one of the great trails of Scotland – the trail has already been defined. This though is also one of the downsides of the route – the hidden paths and trails around the Southern Upland Way clearly had so much to offer and although we got some fantastic views and a great route there were so many interesting pockets to explore that the route bypassed.
I understand the practical and technical reasons for following the Southern Upland Way but I could see how there might be opportunity to return to the area and experience a very different running or hiking day.
The elevation at around 2800 metres was fine and although steep in places it was nothing to overly concern yourself with, regular hill training would cover what is effectively like climbing three small Munros. Over the course of my additional mileage I managed to clock up nearly an extra 500 metres of elevation – my legs felt every single centimetre of that! Ooof.
The downhill of the route was different and reminded me of some very rough and tough races I’ve attempted like MIUT. I was incredibly grateful for my running poles, as once my knee had gone I needed the poles to reduce the searing pain while descending even the lightest incline.
Ultimately the route was beautiful and wonderful but also very, very cruel and it asked much of those running it, I suspect it asked even more of those, like myself, who haven’t seen a hill in the last year.
What I will add is that the Southern Upland Way for all its beauty lacks surprise or perhaps one great money shot moment – perhaps I’ve been spoilt by things like the Skye Trail Ultra which is mostly money shot or the SainteLyon which has a couple of really outstanding ‘take your breath away’ moments. The trouble with that is that when I look back on this I won’t find a defining moment of the race in terms of the route, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing and worth pointing out if you like your routes filled with those ‘Instagram’ moments.
Organisation GB Ultras remind me a little bit of Centurion Running in that they are well organised, highly regarded by the running community, have a decent social media presence to create strong word of mouth for their events, have good, well marked routes and put on events that people want to run. As the RD, Wayne Drinkwater is very visible and this I think gives confidence to the runners that a well organised event is upon them, and they’d be correct – it is well thought out and well executed.
Pre-race communication was lengthy but full of detailed information and the Covid video was helpful (though I did struggle to find the mandatory kit video).
The thing that was hardest was probably the social media stuff – lots of different pages, lots of different events, lots of crossover and that was a little confused – perhaps some rationalisation of these pages would help in terms of finding things and knowing where to ask questions. For example despite reading through everything I could not find mention of whether running poles were allowed and I didn’t want to bother the RD and the team knowing that they would be incredibly busy in the final days leading up to the event. I’m sure that information is available but I couldn’t find it.
The covid secure systems they had in place seemed to work very well and although they reduce the overall atmosphere of the event they did allow it to take place. I found the race start to be perfectly well executed and despite my trepidation about doing these covid secure events I would say GB Ultras got it spot on.
I would also like to mention the tracking which although perhaps not 100% accurate was certainly mostly accurate and when you were off course the team knew about it and were trying to get in touch with you. This is a vast improvement over some of the tracking we’ve witnessed over the years and that’s a clear indication that the technology is finally catching up with the idea. It’s also worth saying that the Southern Upland Way has pretty good phone reception and so if the GB Ultras team is trying to get in touch they may well actually get through. Not all locations in Scotland have phone reception on a race route – something I quite like because you can’t be disturbed and you can keep your phone in airport mode!
It’s also worth noting that there were pictures and videos aplenty flying around the event and it’s quite an achievement that the GB Ultras team had time to be capturing pictures and footage as well as ensuring the more important stuff got done – like feeding me cake! Well done guys!
All in all the GB Ultras organisation was on point and handled incredibly well given the Covid guidelines.
Value for Money This is always a big one for me in terms of determining whether I would run it again or perhaps more importantly whether to tell other runners about this race. So the cost is £79 and what do you get for that? For starters there’s the race itself, the excellent indoor checkpoint locations, the race tracking and the support when you go significantly off route. There’s the medal and there is a decent crack at good and varied checkpoint food.
So £79 (plus about £10 for the bus back to the start if you need transport) is it worth it? I think so – it’s not really much more than the magic £1 per mile which used to be a significant marker in race costs – what you’re getting is a lovely, tough, well managed day in the hills and that is well worth the money being charged.
Awards Medal, big medal, golden medal. Done.
I was glad there was no t-shirt because I’m not sure I could wear one that had the Union flag on it, as a pro-Scottish Independence, SNP voting Englishman living in Scotland it would have felt weirdly hypocritical to put one on, however, I thought the medal was very nice and really quite understated – it sits proudly at the top of my stairs with its brothers and sisters.
Volunteers I remember thinking at my first ultra marathon all those years ago as I stared at the poor volunteers, ‘fuck I hope I don’t die because you guys couldn’t handle dealing with the dead body’. As I ran into each and every checkpoint of the Ultra Scotland I knew that each member of the checkpoint probably not only knew how to deal with the body but probably had a good idea on how to dispose of me too. The volunteers were exceptional, every single person knew the drill and they remained Covid secure throughout.
Kudos to them for remaining both diligent, supportive and in some cases amusing. Being a volunteer at an endurance event can be a cold, lonely and thankless job but these guys were amazing – so thank you all.
The Runners I sometimes think that when we consider races or write reviews we forget that actually it’s mostly about the runners – we tend to focus on medals, routes, organisation but having the race against the background of the pandemic reminded me that without runners willing to train, travel, get wet, potential fuck themselves up – well then races wouldn’t take place at all.
I’ve mentioned the awesome Kieran whom without, I wouldn’t have made it to the end, I’ve mentioned Nick who was simply brilliant and I expect to see his name against some really big challenges in the coming years – there was something about him and I’ve mentioned a whole host of other names but I did say I’d come back to Michelle and here we are! I was introduced to Michelle via social media a few days before the race through a mutual acquaintance – the evergreen Grant Wilcox. Anyway we exchanged a couple of messages and wished each other well saying we’d chat if we saw each other.
Well I met Michelle several times over the course of the race and even stated out loud that I hope she was going to make it back in time – what I didn’t realise was the Michelle I met on the route was the Michelle I had spoken to via social media.
What a dumbass I am.
Worse than that it would take me at least another couple of days to connect the two. Bloody numpty! Anyway the good news was that she made it and I’m happy about that. Should I meet her again I will definitely tell her the real story of the Snowdonia Marathon though and how I came to meet our mutual buddy – Grant!
I suppose the thing about this running of the Ultra Scotland is that only about 50 runners turned out for it but actually it felt like many more and the runners should be congratulated for their part in making the event of the success that it was.
My Race Well as you’ve read I had a both brilliant and torrid time, I went in injured but reasonably well trained and I came out injured further and totally ruined. That said I had a great time getting this ruined and despite a late finish I got up to hike Gray Mare’s Tail the next morning and was back running on the Monday. I wish my knee had held up because I knew about my hamstring and felt I could manage that but the knee was unexpected and that both threw me and slowed me significantly. So it wasn’t a disaster for me – I mean I finished but I didn’t finish the way I wanted and that’s disappointing.
Conclusions What can I say about the Ultra Scotland 50? Well it’s a tough as old boots challenge that lives up to trail running label, it has superb organisation and a great team behind it. GB Ultras deserve all the plaudits they get from the running community and managing to stage a Covid secure event deserves extra credit.
There are a few niggles though, but nothing dramatic and certainly nothing that would stop me entering – the big bugbear was that this is closer to 60 than 50 miles even in the official distance and by the time you’ve added on your extra mileage it is definitely reading more like a 60 mile race, I suppose I could try and get better at navigation but where’s the fun in that? I understand that for marketing it’s better to have a set of 50 mile races but it is inaccurate.
I enjoyed the race and I feel like it’s one that you could easily have a good crack at regardless of your level but it’s a ‘no prisoners’ kind of a race and if the weather was shit then this would be a real ball breaker – something to think of given this is Scotland, in early spring and snow, wind and rain isn’t unusual! We got pretty lucky with the weather but even in decent conditions the wind at the hill tops was cold and happy to give your face a good blasting.
Would I do it again?
Well I’d be in no rush to sign up again because I feel that I’ve experienced the Southern Upland Way path and if I were going to run there again it would be on new trails. That said I enjoyed this enough to consider going back and improving on my performance at some point in the future and I felt that GB Ultras put on a great event and therefore I’d be very happy to go and try one of their other races next year – the Pennine Barrier being the one that most interests me.
Is it worth you doing it? Well that’s up to you – you can find out more about this race and their other events on the GB Ultras website.
As for me I’ll be polishing my medals (not a euphemism) and reviewing the Great Glen Ultra in July, once I’ve run it – 71 miles, argh!
Three sleeps to go until the Ultra Scotland 50 will be well underway and the question is no longer will it go ahead (hopefully) but will this middle aged numpty make it to the finish? I think it is fair to say that we have all hoped that races, in particular for this blogs audience, ultra marathons would start again – because it is what we adore doing.
In recent weeks I’ve seen the Bonnie Prince Ultra, the Loch Ness 360 and the Pennine Bridleway be postponed again and so with the Ultra Scotland taking place just a couple of weeks after the restrictions were lifted it was a big ask that it would return. However, GB Ultras cautious optimism seems to have paid off and the event will go ahead as planned and I’ve committed to running it in those few days time, because ultimately if racing gets stopped again I’d love, just once, to get back out there and feel the wind on my back and a race number on my front.
The only trouble is that the moment I submitted my marathon PB, as requested by the race organisers to sort runners into waves, my hamstring went pop and has been a little shit ever since. So now, despite all the training and weight loss I’ve managed in the last year all of that may be useless because I’ll be hanging on for dear life just to finish.
So it’s going to be a ‘hello there’ from me to racing and a ‘hell here’ from racing to me.
I used to look on at the ultra marathoners who completed the Centurion Running Grandslam with a little bit of jealousy but never fancied doing it myself despite really wanting to test myself in a series.
Well I rather fell out of love with Centurion Running and stopped racing with them – no skin off their noses, they’ve got ultra runners and ultra running wannabies banging down their door to get in to their races. I never felt like it was a community I was comfortable in, now this isn’t to say that Centurion don’t put on good events – they do, really good, but they stopped being for me, a socially awkward introvert.
So, given that Centurion was probably the biggest UK Grandslam in the south of England I probably wasn’t going to get to do a series of races in this format.
Fast forward 5 years and much has changed I’m living in Scotland and a driving licence has been achieved which has brought access to all sorts of lovely new race opportunities including Hardmoors and GB Ultras. Now while the first 18 months here have been about getting settled, buying a new home, etc I’ve become determined that after a rubbish running in 2019 that 2020 would be a year of interesting race opportunities.
And so my road to a grandslam began.
Late in 2019 I came across Ranger Ultras who race in and around the Peak District and they immediately caught my eye. It was after my failure at the Ochil Ultra that I signed up for the Y3P (Yorkshire Three Peaks) that Ranger Ultras put on. However, it turned out that injury and illness would conspire against me and so on the day before the race I pulled out.
However, the description of their event intrigued me and there was something rather ‘old school’ about them that I really liked.
I put them on my ‘must look into for 2020’ list of race providers, though by this time 2020 was pretty well formed with 5 or 6 ultra marathons already booked in. But I figured I’d like to go back and give the Yorkshire Three Peaks a bash given I’d missed it just a few weeks earlier.
Roll forward to the start of this year and there are positives starting to show themselves – I’ve been running a bit (woohoo), I’ve finished four races of which two were 50km each – not bad for a bloke, who if he were a building would be described as condemned or at the very least dilapidated. I kept sourcing new events to do this year and interestingly kept managing to squeeze them in – but not in the months that had the races of the inaugural Ranger Ultras Grandslam. Hmmmm.
In my head I began working out the logistics – the Peak District is a reasonable distance from Scotland and with a large family trip to Canada this year I wouldn’t have oodles of annual leave to use up in travelling to and from events.
The races needed to be of a distance that I could travel down to after work on a Friday night and still be fresh enough come Saturday morning to race – as criteria that precludes anything over about 60 miles.
Thankfully the first race was 57km along the Pennine Bridleway – a perfect distance as I look to build up again, a perfect time of year as it should be rather windy and wet without too much sunshine and with a reasonably generous time allowance it should be both achievable and challenging.
The second and third race are then not until nearer the year end which again works for me (mostly). The Yorkshire Three Peaks takes up October and at 100km will serve as an excellent test of my running in preparation for the year ending Cheviot Goat.
Missing the Y3P last year was a real annoyance as I had entered late in the day and had to pull out even later and I feel that as a runner who has covered a lot of ground across the UK this iconic route should have been done at least once.
Maybe that’s why it is this grandslam over some of the others – The Peak District is a place that is relatively unknown to me, they’re new and I like the challenge of new. I like the adventure of seeing the sun go down on a new horizon, I enjoy the feel of a new ground below my feet though I am confident that by the time I have run the weekend double header of the white and dark peaks at the end of November I will be fully sated and probably and bit angry at The Peaks but I will hopefully feel that I fully adventured there (at least for a little while).
This adventure is very much about continuing my journey to find out who I am and who I want to be.
I moved my life from London so that I would be able to do stuff like this, so that I could fill my boots with things that make me smile and things that can inspire me to consider joining races like The Spine or The Race Across Scotland. I have need to push myself to limit of my physical ability and perhaps more importantly my mental ability – both have which have being a bit lardy over recent years.
I feel that the grandslam will make me work harder and keep my mental endurance on track – vital for both my running and my day-to-day life.
If I do get through the first challenge of the PB57 I will know that I then need to get through, amongst others, the Ultra Scotland and the Loch Ness 360 because these will form the basis of my fitness to take on the rest of the series. Each completion will hopefully build confidence going into the next – the tough times will come if something goes wrong in one of these events as it did last year and I will be working hard to stop one bad event unravelling the rest of the year.
But let’s look for positives…
The bad news is that attempting to scratch the grandslam itch may only make that itch worse – I can feel it. Success here (and by success I mean completing it) will make me want to take a crack at the Hardmoors series of races. However, I have no idea if I will achieve the Ranger Ultras Grandslam, my failure rate suggests that there is a good chance that something will go wrong during at least one of the races but I am hopeful that the risk of missing out on the grandslam finish will push me onward towards some form of glorious end.
After four months of near inactivity the Tyndrum 24 (a looped foot race near the West Highland Way) had to be looked at with a bit of common sense. Even before I arrived I knew that running 24 hours was highly unlikely and I had joked that I might sleep 4 hours for every 1 hour of running but that’s getting rather ahead of myself.
For those of you who read my previous blog post (read it here) you’ll know that my training and racing has been almost non-existent since September and even before that it had been sporadic at best. I’d gained a shedload of weight and worse – I’d grown lazy and unfit. The truth is that I’d grown so lazy and unfit that during the 2019 festive season I had very much considered not running the Tyndrum 24.
However, after a short test of the route just before new year I decided that I would put the months of R&R and overating behind me and use the T24 to open my 2020 race account and see just how fall I had fallen.
A mid winter looped race in Scotland is always going to be a challenge – weather likely to be unpredictable, underfoot conditions likely to be grim and the cold… the cold. However, I approached this in a practical kind of way and packed up every bit of kit I could and worked out how I could stop semi regularly and rest so as to not push myself too far and risk injury and avoid failing to turn up at my next event.
In the run up it was confirmed that conditions were set to be kind and as I left the house on Saturday morning I was hopeful that the light drizzle would disappear and we’d have a lovely event.
I drove the back roads through Duone and Callendar up to Tyndrum and enjoyed the snow dusted hills and the dawn rising around me. I find driving through new parts of Scotland and the many little towns one of the delights of being here. I pulled up to the Green Welly about 8.30am and after meeting the first couple of volunteers (talking about you Andrew) I started to set up camp in the car. Here I imagined that I’d come back from the route jump into a sleeping bag – have a snooze, change and get back out – all part of the plan.
I disappeared off for a few minutes to have my pre-race poo and when I came back the window of the car next to me opened and the gentleman in the seat said hello.
Now as regular readers will know I am not a very sociable chap – except in a race scenario and so David and I chewed the fat for a while, especially over our mutual appreciation of the Skye Trail Ultra. Weirdly there was something familiar about him and much as I tried I could not place him but I’m going to guess that he may well be the David I met at the start line of the Tweed Valley Ultra in 2018 – perhaps I’ll never know.
As the clock moved on I suggested we head down to registration – which gave me the opportunity to meet up with the wonderful Linlithgow Runner, Brian.
David and I rocked up the The Way Outside site and headed into registration after a bit of a bimble around the drop bag site and a watch of the other runners milling around as they waited for the start. The site seemed well set up and there was space for runners, volunteers and supporters to move around without pissing each other off – a good move from the race organisers. With time moving on though we headed upstairs to the registration point and were processed both quickly and efficiently (weirdly it could well have been fellow instagrammer Karmac70 that gave me my number but I can’t be sure).
Anyway, ID check was done, number was handed over, car details handed over to ensure any problems could be mentioned to us during the race and then we were sent outside to grab the lap dibber. All very easy, all really well drilled.
On the way to collect the dibber (from the awesomely hairstyled Jeff/Geoff) we ran in to Brian – saved me going to look for the bugger and it was a genuine joy to see him.
Brian and I have gotten to know one another a bit over the last few months as he’s been progressing his distances for bigger challenges to come and was ready to step up again with 12 hours at Tyndrum. We did brief introductions and then headed down to the Real Food Cafe for a cup of tea and a chat in nice warm surrounds. This, for me, was a wonderfully relaxing way to start a race and as we chatted about running and races I looked back with rose tinted specs to all those races were I’ve run terribly. Ha! Still saved me thinking about the terrible running I was about to do.
Post tea Brian headed off to get ready and David and I drifted off to the car park for a final change of kit.
The next hour or so there was mostly hanging around and although friendly and conversational you could feel that runners were keen to set off, there was a nervous energy about the place and even I, the fat hobbit, was keen to set off. However, I managed to fill my time with a few photos and exchanges of strange tales with some of the other runners.
Looking round the checkpoint you could see a broad assortment of runners, mountain goats, road runners, first timers, old timers and misfits (I was in the misfit camp) – it was a real mix that had been attracted and in my experience that makes a for a good time. I’m always fascinated about what brought all of these wonderful people to a looped running event? in Tyndrum? on a cold and chilly day in January? That was something I’d be exploring with the many runners I came across during my time on the course.
After a short briefing from Stacey Holloway, the Race Director, we were off and rather annoyingly I found myself near the front and so immediately set about rectifying this and slowed my pace dramatically. During these first few hours where daylight existed I was keen to soak in my surroundings and enjoy the clear, crisp weather that’s one of the key joys of having this as my main hobby – the opportunity to see bits of the world that others do not and with loops you get to revisit the experience several times over and take in different details each time.
We ambled down the course jumping across the pools of water that had settled and a couple of short water jumps that were included as part of the entry before coming to the main river crossing. Given the heavy rain recently this could have been treacherous but actually it was fine and there were multiple good crossing points.
I was actually rather enjoying myself – I even leapt across the rocks in the run up to the bridge and then broke out into some genuine running before the first major hill that I knew I’d be hiking up. The hill brought many of the runners to a plod, myself included and this was a good chance to chat to people and wave on the speedgoats who would be crossing the hundred mile mark.
I was more concerned that Brian would overtake me on the first lap and so I plodded on – very keen to get the first loop in the bag – he could then overtake on loop 2 (I wouldn’t mind that so much). The climb wasn’t horrendous but it was significant – perhaps not in these early loops but as the day wore on this would increasingly feel hard and I noted that the ground below our feet, throughout the course, pretty much, was hard, unforgiving and unrelenting – this could be a worry given that neither my back or hips have ever responded well to sustained hard trails.
The descent from the high point of the course was going to be equally challenging but both of these seemed in line with expectations – it was the middle part of the course that looked the most challenging to me. Benign undulation and a long relatively dull stretch of path was what awaited the runners – this would be the part that divided opinion either as a rest from elevation or a chore between the interesting bits.
I battered down the mine road towards the (well used, given how many runners I saw going in and out of it) mid point toilet stop and then clambered up towards the final section of the route beyond the highly amusing medics who were preparing the fire and clearly a BBQ! Then it was a relatively single track path back towards the checkpoint which was rocky, undulating, challenging and yet very enjoyable. The short bursts upwards and the fast bursts downwards made for a bit of movement in the legs – something that felt very necessary after the grind of the mine road.
The final burst back up to the checkpoint was a gentle lollop back along the river with a rather cruel loop in the checkpoint before reaching the dibber and our dibber checker.
I rolled into the checkpoint feeling reasonable but not without concern – fitness was obviously a concern but that was feeling steady – the problem was that my groin was feeling like shit. I started on my second lap with a light burning that was going through the same highs and lows as the route but lap 2 was finished within a reasonable time and I was still moving. Hurrah! However, the pain was now fully formed and sending shooting signals down my leg and up into my back.
I started to think about my options, one lap for a medal – well that was done but mentally that would be bad – I had originally aimed for 50 miles but that was rapidly being repurposed to a 30 mile run. In my head that was still going to be a failure but a chat with the GingaNinja reminded me that having not run for months those 30 miles would represent a reasonable return.
By lap 4 those 30 miles looked so far from achievable – I was in a really poor way, this felt like a DNF in the making and not reaching the minimum ultra distance was going to be a DNF to me.
It seemed to me though that on each lap I was going to meet someone that would help me reach the minimum distance. There was a Jennifer, John, Karen, the wonderful long distance walker Paul and many more. Occasionally I’d see Brian, David, Fiona or Neil who would provide a bit of a lift to get me over another hump. There were cuddles and conversation with (I’ll say husband and wife) Andrew and Susan – each one of these people and many more provided the incentive to keep going long enough to get six loops done. I heard amazing stories from the young, the old, the speedy and the slow and each one felt like stardust that kept me going just a little bit longer.
Laps 5 and 6 were well into the darkness and there was the greatest joy as I was able to sample the night sky of Tyndrum and the beautiful twinkling of all the stars in the sky watching over us. I stood at the bottom of the main climb, alone with my headtorch off wishing that I had a decent camera with me to capture this moment – I did something similar on the single track back up towards the start need the little mini loch and felt both the joy and appreciation of freedom I enjoy to be ale to be out here. However, as I swtiched my light on during those last few hundred metres of lap 6 I knew that a decision had to be made.
And it is 100% true that I didn’t make my final decision to halt at six loops until I was almost on top of the checkpoint. I felt sad, I felt drained but this was the only decision that could be made if I wanted to build on what had been done at the Tyndrum 24.
I had very much wanted to continue as the night time running was going to be spectacular and weather conditions were such that the route was going to be good overnight but my injury woes were getting worse and I knew that at some point I would need to drive home – injured.
I hobbled into the checkpoint and saw Jeff/Geoff and his beautiful hair (he let me touch it) and exited the race with a medal and my tail between my legs – there was no pride in my finish or my distance but it was a finish.
Distance: 5 mile loops over 6, 12 or 24hrs
Date: January 2020
Terrain: Hard Trail
Tough Rating: 2/5
Route I’ve already described much of the route but what I haven’t said is that there is a plethora of stunning scenery to delight in and despite being near civilisation you can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere too – it’s a clever place to put a race like this. However, I felt the hard conditions underfoot took away from the picturesque nature of the route but it is a minor thing yet something some runners might want to consider if you’re thinking about entering. I’d been out and tested the route over the festive period as I was in the area anyway but I’d gone in reverse to the way we ran at T24 and felt that the reverse was easier – but again it’s all opinion and ultimately you’re doing the same elevation whichever way you went.
Organisation The organisation was faultless, yes there were challenges – the on route toilet became unusable for a number 2 apparently and there was the occasional headless chicken moment as someone was running round looking to fix a problem but everything was handled well. What felt like an army of (I’ll assume) volunteers and the RD looked effortless on their exertions both at the checkpoint and around the course. The checkpoint layout, the race registration and the lap counting was all super easy and that’s high praise indeed, especially when you consider that this is an inaugural event. Tyndrum 24 should go from strength to strength and I expect it to be well supported in the coming years.
Communication Regular communication across email and social media channels was excellent, I felt it was very important that the organisers did not rely on social media as a number of races now do. The email communication means you are more likely to catch those runners who don’t use these. In the run up there was quite a lot of information being put out – I would expect that in year two this will be streamlined as the issues that cropped up (such as transfers after the deadline) will be ironed out. Great job on the communications and marketing.
Value When you think about this the race is quite expensive but not outrageous at £80 and well within the average price of similar such events – however, I believe it is excellent value for money, especially compared to its peers.
There was clearly a good deal of organisation that went into the event, there was lots of support such as a toilet on the route, ample quality parking, a good spacious checkpoint base, accurate lap timings, what felt like a load of volunteers, kit purchase options, headtorch loans, etc). There were upcycled race t-shirts and wooden medals which were a nice touch too.
Ultimately the money spent by the runners on entering the race felt like money used on the race.
Volunteers The team behind T24 were really exceptional, I’ve met a lot of great people manning checkpoints or standing out in the cold but these guys were right up there. I’d like to mention once again the lovely Andrew, Susan, (their poor daughter for having to listen to my flirting with her dad) and Jeff/Geoff – they all made me laugh.
The guys on the course – especially those by the little bridge must have been freezing but always had a cheery smile, the medics were unapologetically hilarious and annoyingly inspiring with their nice warm fire going and the lady in the big wooly hat – she was so brilliant – mostly just telling me to get a move on. Ultimately it was a great team that came together to give the runners the support they needed.
My thanks guys.
Loop v Loop I’ve run a few looped events over the years – Challenge Hub 24hr, The Ranscombe Challenges, Brutal Enduro, Endure 1250 and how does the T24 compare?
Thankfully the Tyndrum 24 compares very favourably – it felt very modern and forward thinking, it was incredibly runner friendly and supportive and it felt like an event that was put on for runners by runners. Sometimes looped events can feel like an attempt to get your number of completed marathons up (not that there is anything wrong with that) but this felt like a genuinely challenging event in its own right and you needed to prepare for it whereas sometimes lap races can feel like a turn up and give it a crack – I felt with T24 you had to want to do T24 not just another looped event..
I remember running Endure 1250 and felt that was a ‘numbers’ event where I was just putting another number on my ultra total but here I felt like runners, myself included were racing whatever clock they were facing. In another year when I was a little fitter I would feel very confident of running 75 miles or more because I wanted to and I could train for that.
As looped events go this was one of the more fun ones and sits up there alongside the Ranscombe and Brutal loops as a favourite.
Medal The medal design was very nice, and as readers will know I do love a medal, my only concern is that the thickness of the wood suggests that this might not survive much of a bash. When I compare this to say the thickness of the wood of either Ben Vorlich or the Nocturnal I feel both of these will be a little more hardy. I’d have been quite happy to pay a couple of pounds extra for a few more millimetres of wood to ensure that my memento of this event lasts for the duration of my life.
Eco No plastic cups? Wooden medals, upcycled race shirts, local suppliers – all things I can very much get on board with and I doubt you’d hear any runners complaining about this. The race encouraged users to use public transport where possible – going so far as to have a race start time that made this possible (something that just two years ago I’d have been very happy with given I didn’t drive). Issues around sustainability in running is likely to become a bigger and bigger selling point as the years go on and it is good to see a race taking a lead on issues like this.
Conclusion I suppose the conclusions come down to whether I would run the event again and the answer is a well considered yes.
Tyndrum 24 is a strange beast of an event given the location and time of year but it is a much needed addition to the UK ultra running calendar as winter running events in January, especially in Scotland, are nowhere to be found. There is a reason though why this is so and that reason is that Scotland can have hideous weather in January and the possibility of cancellation presumably remains high.
These things are something you will have to factor into your calculations when you consider entering – this year the event was fortunate to have the best possible conditions – but next year and the year after may not be so lucky. How would you feel running in the driving rain up and down hill in the dark for at least 16 hours? Or ploughing though the snow for the same amount of time wearing every last inch of clothing you could manage just to get to 30, 40 or 50 miles? I’ll be interested to see how the event goes on in a year like that.
Perhaps the more important question for you is, should you enter? I feel the answer to that is easy – of course you should. This was a really lovely event with a wild mix of runners from all walks of life and the fact that the organisation was top class only adds to the conclusion that this is a top quality event.
I’d go so far as to say that it is race worth travelling for and 100 miles across the maximum time allowed is very achievable even if you chose to walk speedily the entire thing you’d be grinding out distances near three figures.
I also feel it is worth noting that the race directorship team is new to this and should be given a huge amount of praise for the amount of work they poured into this – it looked like a labour of love and that hard work paid off with a smooth and delightful event.
My own race, as I’ve suggested, was a failure but not totally, 4 laps away from my 50 mile target, I ran for less than 8 hours and I was in so much pain that this throws into doubt my participation at the Falkirk Ultra. Mentally though there was a hint of success – despite my lack of fitness and groin/hip/back problems from less than 5 miles in I managed to hold on and knock out 30 failure lacklusture miles but 30 miles nonetheless.
As I write this on Sunday evening while listening to some made people on the post football chat on BBC 5 Live I can feel the pain rolling around my groin and hip, Every time I stand up I feel it and evry time I take a step I feel it. I made the right decision to pull out. The potential to cause further long term damage was real but I know how to solve it – I need to weigh 15kg less, I need to eat less rubbish and I need to get back out there probably tomorrow, even if it is only for a slow couple of kilometres, probably involving the hill outside my house.
Thanks T24, thanks to everyone involved and who knows maybe I’ll see you next year.
Next Next I prepare for a solid weekend of Scottish fun starting on February 1st at the Edinburrgh Winter Riun where ASK and I will attempt to bring her mile time down a little and the following day I’ll be heading to Callendar Park in Falkirk to run loops again but this time deliverately for 8 hours (both subject to my injuries calmong down a bit).
Before I start I should write that I realise that given the state of the world that my ‘problems’ discussed here are small fry and I lead both a fortunate and charmed life.
Still I hadn’t written a blog in a while and I’d gotten to be an unfit fatty!
Undoubtedly 2019 was my worst year of running since I began in 2011 and that’s a sad thing to consider given how relatively well 2018 had ended. I can’t deny that there were moments were I believed that I was turning a corner but it turned out that each corner proved to be another slap in the face from a different assailant.
Now normally I fill my blog with tales of injury woe and there was some of that but this year was more complicated.
The move to Scotland continued and although the whole family was now safely north of the English border we needed to find a house to buy and this proved more challenging than we had initially hoped and I had perhaps naively assumed that I could continue with my rather torturous race schedule during this hectic time.
THE WARNING SIGNS & A FALL FROM GRACE The truth was that I could not continue as I had before and I got a very early warning of this when I travelled 450 miles to run the awesome Vigo Tough Love 10 (and pack up the remainder of the house). I felt every last inch of the race in my legs and the cramp that nearly killed me at mile 9 was horrendous. This should have been a warning to me but my general excitement about being in Scotland amongst all of these nice new races meant I went a bit mad.
My second warning that things were not going to go well came at the start line of the Highland Fling, here I ran into Andy O’Grady – the man who saw me to the finish line at the Skye Trail Ultra. ‘You’ve piled on the beef haven’t you?’ he said casually – he was only joking around with me but for a man who has poor body image issues this was something of a blow. However, it was also confirmation of something I knew very well – the trips up and down to Scotland, the lack of training, the lack of running and activity, the over eating and the living on my own for three months had taken their toll on my body – I’d gotten fat and lardy, both mentally and physically.
The same day as Andy poked fun at my fatness I found myself in the misery of the 9hrs of heavy rain and an unpleasant fall on Conic Hill at The Highland Fling. I withdrew from the race about mile 35 – a little over a half marathon from the finish – I was distraught.
How far I felt I’d fallen.
At the checkpoint where I threw in the towel I could see the excellent Scottish runner ‘Rhona Red Wine Runner’ somebody whose blog I have been a big fan of and periodically chatted to via Twitter over the years. We’d never met but I’d become so ashamed of my performance and appearance that I hid in the corner of the room I was waiting in hoping she neither noticed or recognised me.
The injury from the fall was relatively easy to recover from but the mental side of it was difficult to get over, even though I was just about ready for it I pulled out of the Balfron 10km and pulled out of the Ultra Trail Scotland for the second time.
With the final house move the weekend after my Fling effort I began to feel that I was simply pushing too hard too fast. However, rather than rest properly I decided that once the house move had concluded and my body had recovered a bit I gave it some welly and started training again, returning to ultrarunning with the relatively simple but challenging Ben Vorlich Ultra.
I found Ben Vorlich tough as my fitness was still somewhat lacking but there was an overwhelming sense of joy that accompanied it and I started to feel like I could make some progress ater successfully completing the race and so immediately went home and entered the Thieves Road which runs across the Pentlands near Edinburgh. Sadly on race morning I awoke with a terrible case of the Gary Gritters and this kyboshed my attendance – sensible as I spent most of the day on the toilet and given the temperatures recorded I would not have finished anyway.
Still I had the Ambleside 60 upcoming in early September and so I retained my focus and actually I managed to continue training once the illness had passed and although the Ambleside 60 was even tougher than Ben Vorlich I managed to get over the line. I was finally feeling something of a bounce and with an effective if unconventional training regime (running up and down the West Lothian Bings and hiking in the Ochils). I was beginning to feel ready but once again I was about to get a kick in the guts and one that would end my year.
During the Ochil Ultra my stomach gave me all sorts of problems and I was vomiting from early on, I managed to push on to about the 20 odd mile point but as I came into the checkpoint I simply collapsed on the floor and lay there thinking about my latest failure – this year was being rubbish. I felt at that moment the least like an ultrarunner that I have ever felt, I felt like a failure and that the runner who had earned nearly 200 medals, 50 of them in ultramarathon distances was coming to the end of his running career.
I went home that day and ate Dominos pizza and probably quite a lot of sweet things, I felt rubbish, I was rubbish and from here the dark gloom that came over me felt very tangible. Every race from here to the end of the year was thrown into jeopardy by this running breakdown. Race after race started to be cancelled as I realised that I was never going to make the start line, never mind the finish.
Benarty Hill Race, The Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra, The Rebellion and finally The Cheviot Goat – significant cost (best part of £500 across those 4 races and hundreds more spent on maps and kit for these events.
However, the money was less significant than the cost to my mental wellbeing.
As the days dragged on beyond the Ochil Ultra I found myself enjoying retreating to a position of rest that involved eating biscuits, playing with my family and catching up on movies I’ve been waiting to see for an absolute age. There was a need for a physical break after all our efforts over the last year and work was being brutal in the run up to a significant project launch so maybe this stoppage was something that was needed.
However, running has always been my release and is inextricably linked to both my mental and physical wellbeing – so was there going to be a price to pay? Something I should have given more consideration as I sit here writing this in January.
Racing had now dropped down my priority list, something that had not happened in all the years since I began ultrarunning in 2013. A nasty illness in November also came at the wrong time and when I had been considering getting back out there in order to race The Goat and meet up with outstanding ultra runner Ryan Flowers.
However, I was sidelined for the best part of a month in the run up to The Goat and had no choice but to withdraw in the days leading up to the event. Thankfully I recovered in time for the a first family Christmas in our new home and our second in Scotland and while this was very enjoyable and relaxing I realised that I had relaxed too much, I’d put on significant weight over the past year and I was hiding in baggy clothing and finding it embarrassing being me.
And even as I added cream to another coffee and opened another packet of biscuits I still was struggling and it was only when I realised that my new found laziness was affecting things like my breathing that I decided it was time to pull on the running shoes and get back out there.
MEDAL COLLECTION INSPIRATION The sad thing is that my medal collection hasn’t been giving me any joy or providing the inspiration to earn more medals – it has simply become a historical record of achievement rather than a living breathing thing which grows and evolves.
When I lived in the South East of England I found that every time I ascended my steep staircase I was greeted by my medal collection, it demanded that I added more but now it doesn’t do this, it is a decoration – therefore I’m going to find a new home for those medals so that they provide the inspiration I clearly crave.
Perhaps several medals in quick succession will help to build the desire again or if not medals then at least finishes – the benefit of the T24 and the Falkirk 8hr is that they are both loops and so I can’t fail to finish – subject to completing at least one lap and the F50K is running around Falkirk which is pretty well known to me now and should be within my ability. I was planning on adding in a few shorter distance races on the in between weeks too – so ASK and I are off to Edinburgh to run the Winter Family Run (1mile). I may also consider a couple of 5 or 10km distances too – just to hold the precious piece of metal in my hand and bask in personal success – believe me I know how idiotic I sound. However, I have long associated the medals with me being in a good place, even if the state of me as I first clutch a medal is pretty ruined!
ANOTHER RETURN? Let me assure you it has not been easy to bother with another return. Scotland and it’s notoriously foul weather has been in full evidence over the last few weeks and yet I have still found myself throwing on my shorts and doing little bits of running that will form the basis of my training.
5km most days isn’t really marathon territory but it’s a start. There has been lots of elevation added across these short distance and as a family we are resuming hill walking at the weekends and enjoying the great Scottish outdoors that we moved up here for regardless of what the weather looks like.
It is slow going, very slow and I am both the fattest and unhealthiest I have been in years and I am not finding it fun but I am doing it.
I don’t really enjoy these periodic rebirths and the themes in them are, sadly, reliably consistent, which gives me caution when I pin my hopes on another go at getting fit and healthy. The spiral that I seem locked into perhaps require some form of significant event to kickstart me into action – something akin to a heart attack or a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. I realise that this sounds ridiculous but when you find that you can wake up regardless of your fitness and still force out 30, 40 or 50 miles and get the medal then the attitude can still afford to be, ‘well I can still do it’.
When I see social media material about Transformation Thursdays or Reframed Fridays or whatever these stupid names are I can see that there was a significant issue going on and that the person has done something about it – usually gotten fitter, cleaner, lighter, healthier. I’ve never quite managed to get to the point where the problems were so significant that the doctor or other person was saying, ‘listen mate you’re one Mars Bar away from ruining yourself forever’. That conversation doesn’t take place and so I find myself excusing my poor food behaviours and finding new ways to justify continuing them.
That is a difficult set of mental blocks to overcome and even as I write this I am struggling with it.
SECRET EATING Those months of secretly eating Bernard Matthews Mini Chicken Kievs and Belvita Filled Strawberry bakes has not given me any joy – in fact these actions, this eating has made me very sad indeed. I’ve spoken before about over-eating, secret eating and the negative effects that this has but whereas before I was using running to combat it I’ve found that this time I was simply destroying years of work in bowls of processed and sugary treats.
It is a sorry state of affairs that I’ve been secret eating food I don’t even want but at least I can admit it and hopefully now do something about it.
CONTROL & ATTITUDE But I’m only at the start and I have yet to get control of the eating but at the very least I have enough control to be doing the exercise that can negate some of the impact of my foul food behaviours.
There is also the question of ASK, one I’ve mentioned before, my food behaviour should not be allowed to rub off on her and I am aware that sometimes I fail in this aspect of parenting and it is an area that I need to work on harder. Even if I can’t eat vegetables and fruit I should still be actively promoting these to her. In fairness she is not the glutton I can be and has a very healthy enjoyment of positive food choices – seeing things such as chocolate as a treat rather than seeing them as I do, as a food group that requires 5 a day.
The physical activity is also helping to get a better balance mentally – I feel more decisive and clearer in vision when I’m fitter and as I hiked around the delightful Falls of Clyde last weekend I could feel myself wanting to go further, be active and it was delightful – the trouble is that tonight’s running was torrid and tough – the battle is clearly only just beginning.
But control of my attitude towards health is going to be key to regaining overall control and ensuring that the enjoyment I’ve had through being healthy continues through my 40s and beyond. With control, will come the respect that my body deserves after serving faithfully for the last 42 years and in that respect I will create the kind of person I want my family to see.
I’m hopeful that I’ll finally make a decision regarding a recognised running club which I feel will offer a greater ‘herd mentality’. Being around other runners does provide a greater sense of purpose and direction, especially to me, and although it is not something I have ever done I feel it will create a support network I can both draw from and feed into.
My experiences with Parkrun, The London Social Runners and The Linlithgow Running Buddies all had lots of highs but ultimately none were quite the right fit for my running needs (although I retain huge respect for them all) and I feel the right running club would help keep me on the straight and narrow.
Sadly one thing that I did try to help inspire me was Strava. I had hoped that joining Strava would provide new local running connections but the truth is that it hasn’t – save for the lovely Fiona (hello if you’re reading this, nice to see you the other night) and despite my local area being full of runners and sporting types I haven’t found organic ways to make connections that might benefit myself and equally them. Therefore I have probably given up on Strava, though never say never and if you find my activities making their way onto your app screen – do think kindly of the fat bloke running around Falkirk.
SO NEXT NEXT… This weekend brings me to the first race of the year at the Tyndrum24 – a looped 24hr event where I plan on going super slowly and super steadily and taking so much kit with me that my body shouldn’t have to take too much of a hammering from the conditions (lots of shoes, lots of waterproofs). I’d like to come out of T24 with around 50 miles completed – which might not sound like much but given that the furthest I’ve run since the Ochil Ultra is 7.5km then 50 miles sounds like a big ask. If I can achieve the 50 mile mark I’ll be very happy and this will hopefully give me something of a momentum launch into a busy year of events with the Falkirk Ultra following 2 weeks later and the F50K 4 weeks after that.
I really want the T24 to help me rebuild the confidence I am going to need to complete events such as the Loch Ness 360 and the Ultra Scotland 50.
Don’t get me wrong I don’t want to be fat, unfit or unhealthy – I want to be none of these things and I desperately want to get back to being a healthy icon for my daughter – who I encourage to be active at every available opportunity. As I write I find it amusing that this may sound like I consider 2019 to be an unhealthy nightmare and a waste of time but the truth is far more complicated than that – 2019 was actually a really very positive year filled with much joy and fun times.
As a family we have developed new facets – especially with ASK starting school and the move to Scotland has proved to be the kind of success I had hoped for – but there is room for improvement. New friendships to replace those we left behind will be important as we go forward and we must be keen to make the required amount of time in our daily routine to ensure we are getting the most out of this wonderful opportunity.
So what’s the plan?
Well there are the dozen ultra marathons which are a very serious consideration and I’ve entered things that I believe will be the hardest possible challenge given the level to which I have dropped, importantly though, with effort, I feel these are achievable. I remain focused on smaller and inaugural events with the odd bigger event to remind me that ultra running events aren’t completely solo sports.
Tyndrum 24, although my first event back is more than a warm up as I’ve said – this will be the launch pad and building blocks that may make or break the rest of the year. I’ll be following this up with the 1 mile family fun run in Edinburgh where ASK and I will attempt to drive her mile time down even further and I do love running with my daughter.
Then we hit the main thrust of the year from February until the end of July I’m goin g to giving it full throttle, The Falkirk Ultra and the F50K followed a few weeks later by the Peninne Bridelway in what will be the first of the Ranger Ultras Grandslam (assuming I enter) then another 4 weeks before I take to the Southern Upland Way with GB Ultras and then around 4 weeks further before the years longest ultra around the new Loch Ness 360 trail. Less than 3 weeks later I’ll be towing the line of the John Lucas Memorial, which as a more tarmac ultra could be an unmitigated disaster given my relationship with tarmac races and that’s just a few days before spending 3 (hopefully) awesome weeks in Canada, travelling round but also racing the truly awesome looking Quebec Mega Trail (only the 15km but still a first Canadian race seems like the only sensible thing to do) and then when I touch down I’ve got a few days before I’m back in the saddle for The Run The Blades 50km – I suppose something of a warm down compared to the rest of the events in the run up.
Thankfully the summer months are spent in training mode rather than racing as my body hates August and I seem to have a curse regarding races that happen in August so I’ll be skipping this before the winter tests come with the three remaining grandslam races from Ranger Ultras and a first crack but second entry to The Cheviot Goat.
I feel its an unconventional race list, there are no marathons, no big city events, no events that most runners will have heard of, it is a list of grim sounding races filled with elevation or shitty weather or shitty course conditions. It is a race list from someone that wants to get back to running, get back to racing and get back his self respect.
January: Tyndrum 24 (24hr loop) (Entered)
February: Edinburgh Winter Run (1 mile) (Entered)
February: Falkirk Ultra (8hr loop) (Entered)
March: F50K (50km) (Entered)
April: Peninne Bridelway (57km)
May: Ultra Scotland (54 miles) (Entered)
May: Loch Ness 360 (80 miles) (Entered)
June: John Lucas Memorial (46 miles) (Entered)
July: Quebec Mega Trails (15km) (Entered)
July: Run The Blades (50km) (Entered)
October: Yorkshire Three Peaks (100km)
November: White Peaks Trail
November: Dark Peaks Trail
December: Cheviot Goat (54 miles) (Entered)
The only way I’m going to get near completing these is with a plan and I think I’ve got the key areas I need to consider.
Eat more healthily
Start running consistently
Run for longer
Finally pick a running club
Get to the start line of the races I have entered
Continue exploring Scotland
Work on body image issue
I’m clearly not going to fix all the issues any time soon, some are long standing issues that are deeply ingrained in me but as I suggested earlier it is about regaining control and that is something I have done successfully before. It is a very personal, individual experience and one that draws on my failings as a person, my own arrogance and my own falibility but now added to this is a sense of my own mortality. Nobody wants their legacy to be that they slowly faded away – so I’m going to try and not to.
I very much plan on building on the positive things that did take place in 2019 and try and reintegrate the things that worked well from my life before I arrived in Scotland. I am responsible for the mess I have gotten mysef into and by opening myself up to the scrutiny of my peers I hope to encourage myself to be the best version of me.
Having failed to complete the Ochil Ultra I feel now is a time of reflection – I won’t be reviewing it this year as it would be unfair on the organisers to judge this on half a race. However, I can happily confirm that the (a little under) half a race I did was ball achingly epic and an example of a stunningly scenic Scottish ultra marathon that wasn’t in either the highlands or on the West Highland Way. Give it a go I don’t think you’ll be in any way disappointed – and with a couple of the loveliest RDs around.
What I’m looking for is some closure about the Ochil Ultra – sadly that will not be achieved here – only finishing the fucker will deliver that, however, I need to examine what happened and why I am so massively disappointed.
Perhaps the truth is that it’s not the failure that chaffs my arsehole but the way I failed.
I mean I knew things were not going well before the race started and my guts were doing cartwheels. I managed to alleviate this somewhat with the obligatory pre race dump but it still didn’t feel right. Thankfully negative things were somewhat put to the back of my mind by meeting the truly awesome and inspiring Fiona (see enclosed picture) but this was temporary relief and when I lined up at the start I was genuinely worried.
The race was quick to accelerate uphill and I found myself pushing as hard as I could up the first climb to the summit of Dumyat. I was fortunate to be on a route that I knew quite well and the views were truly spectacular. Having been here several times before I was expecting this to be an easy ascent and a relatively easy descent. However, when I reached the top I discovered that the descent was going to be far from easy and several slips and bumps as I went downwards would prove to be my undoing. I made it down to the bottom I tried to have something to eat – one of those baby fruit pouches that are pretty easy on the stomach – however, this was were I discovered that my participation in the Ochil Ultra was going to be short-lived, I started puking my guts up. Everything that I had laid on my stomach to try and stop race nausea came up and it was pretty vile. I crawled away in dismay and started to run again as best I could but on tarmac I could now feel the pain of my back and groin that had taken a pounding coming off that first climb.
I was fucked.
How sad that a race I had been so been looking forward to had come to a conclusion so quickly – but what now? Do I stop at the first checkpoint or do I get as far as possible and hope that everything eased off and I could make it to the last 15 miles or so and push through. Knowing that much tougher races are to come later in the year I felt that I had no choice but to try and push through and see how far I could get.
I pulled into checkpoint one and ate and drank as much as I could stomach, I also opened up the Active Root to see if there was anything it could do to help me ease my stomach issues. I would like to briefly mention the young man who was at the checkpoint and remembered me from Ben Vorlich – he was awesome and helped me get stuff out of my pack so that I didn’t need to take it off. What a great volunteer and he was more than willing to check half a bottle of water over my head!
I decided to head up the hill from checkpoint one and it really wasn’t very far before I was once more on my knees and bringing up the food and drink I had consumed at the checkpoint, chicken and chocolate (yuck). I sat down for a while, who knows how long, but long enough that I had the capacity to get up and continue but I was sort of wishing I hadn’t. It was a steep climb up from here and I made slow progress upwards where a volunteer was looking out for us – I stopped briefly to chat and then pushed onwards.
I looked back at the Ochils and saw a new side to the hills that were one of the great draws that brought me to Scotland. I felt truly grateful to be where I was but I was very much wishing that I did not feel like I did but with gritted teeth I continued through this beautiful and isolated landscape. I came down off the hill to a fisheries on the Glen Devon Estate that I recognised and when briefly I had phone signal I called the GingaNinja and asked her to come and rescue me from checkpoint two – I would be finishing there. The call though was cut short – not by a lack of signal but by having to get across the fast moving stream of water – something that was rather tricky give the state I was in.
Hours seemed to drift by until I finally arrived at the Glen Devon Reservoir and around the 30km mark I assumed that the checkpoint and the therefore my finish line would be just at the bottom of the hill I had climbed only a week or so previously.
I reached the path and saw the arrow pointing upwards to yet more climbing and here I found myself with tears in my eyes. My groin and my back were burning, I had managed to puke for a third and final time and my mental strength had simply evaporated into the ether. I did consider the option of simply walking down to the Glen Sherup car park but knew that there was no phone signal there and felt that the second checkpoint must be nearby. I mean how much elevation could there really be here? The answer to that was revealed as I entered a darkened forest section and noted that the climb looked steep and impossible. However, much as before I simply gritted my teeth and forced my way through the increasingly shitty conditions underfoot. Once I reached the top of the section I saw a sign saying ‘Innerdownie summit 1km’ and noted that we must come back here and make the ascent – something we had considered when, as a family, we were hiking up Ben Shee.
In the distance I could see signs of habitation and assumed that the checkpoint was there and so I gingerly made my way down to the bottom to the welcome of the volunteers and the GingaNinja but all I could say was that those cheers and congratulations were unnecessary – I had failed, totally and utterly and was very sad about that. Perhaps the most annoying thing was that I
The guys at Wee Run Events were tremendous and offered anything I needed and I would like to very much thank them from that. I’ve said it before but the guys really do love what they do and if they don’t then they make it look like they do.
Afterwards & Onwards
Failing here would normally have sent my spiralling into a pit of my own self inflicted misery and ensuring that I just piled on the pounds eating chocolate and bread products but I’ve been rather than pragmatic than that this time. I’ve decided not to run the Rebellion Ultra as I feel as though it is simply too far for me at this time and have instead entered the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra – which at 70km should be a great event and I’ve very rarely run in Yorkshire so its a lovely opportunity.
The injury thankfully has eased off and I’ve immediately gone back to running and so I’m aiming to be ready for the Three Peaks but also more importantly I’m now laser focused on The Cheviot Goat which has been my ‘A’ race all year – so as sad as I feel about the Ochils Ultra it has provided me with renewed focus for my remaining targets this years.
I will still reach ultra number 52 just not at the Ochil Ultra and 2020 will, I am determined, not be the washout that 2019 has been.
Failing to finish, refusing to continue, timed out, did not finish. Doesn’t matter, I did fail but I will return and it is holding on to a positive attitude that will get me through. Some may comment that I was just having a stinker of a day but the truth is that I’ve had too many stinking days at races. I could blame my work stress levels, the sickness on the day or the injuries but ultimately I should only blame myself for my failures – and I do.
So thank you Ochil Ultra, you were awesome and I was shit but I’m coming to get you and next time I will not fail.
In times of turmoil we seek summits and points of vantage to gain clarity of vision.
When I was younger I would go to the Lake District to climb a hill and breathe clean air and give myself greater clarity. Given I didn’t drive (or ride a bike) I would often find myself in places you could reach by public transport and so Ambleside was a popular choice for a young man with a busy mind.
Roll forward a decade or two and my mind remains busy but I’ve added both a driving licence and an ability to ride a bike and so when I saw the inaugural Ambleside Trail 60 on the ultra event calendar I decided that this was for me.
The race was being organised in conjunction between the long established The Climbers Shop (find out more here) in Ambleside and charity The Brathay Trust (find out more here) – both well respected pillars of the community.
I therefore had high expectations for the event.
When looking at the Ambleside Trail 60 on paper you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s rather easy and with a tad under 2,500metres of climb it all seemed perfectly respectable. The problem comes is that when deciding to do this I had conflated the shortness of the distance and relatively low ascent numbers to think this was going to be easy. How wrong can you be?
But anyway let me add a bit of context to proceedings – I’d had an excellent July, training had gone well and I’d come off the Ben Vorlich Ultra feeling pretty good and without injury. The truth is I’d felt so good that I’d returned to training the following day and was looking forwarding to maintaining my running mental strength by taking part in the Thieves Road Ultra. In typical fashion though disaster struck and I took a nasty tumble running up a hill and put a bloody big hole in my knee and this was supplemented by a shitty infection that I couldn’t shift. However, with August 10th approaching I knew that momentum was on my side and I’d be okay(ish) to race but it seemed my August ultra curse was set to continue and the race was cancelled due to the potential for adverse conditions.
What happened next was that race was reorganised for two weeks later, my illness got worse and on race day I spent about 8hrs on the porcelain throne. This time it was me cancelling the race and so I rolled up to the Ambleside 60 with very little training but a lot of chocolate eating done.
As I’ve said I’m a huge fan of The Lake District and Cumbria, it’s a truly spectacular place and so I was very happy to be there on a beautiful morning watching the world go by.
Strangely for an ultra it was taking place on a Sunday which meant I’d had the luxury of bimbling around the Lakes the day previously taking in the delights of Ambleside and registering with the event organisers at The Climbers Shop. Registration was both quick and easy and the lovely organisers were on hand to answer all of my ridiculous questions. I was also mightily impressed that race sponsor Rab (I assume) threw in a warm beanie which is likely to make its race debut later in the year. It was here that I bumped into Ed, a fellow competitor from Ben Vorlich and it was lovely to ‘chew the fat’ with him for a few minutes and catch up about what had happened at the race end. However, we soon parted and I found myself at a loose end but with lots of wonderful outdoor stores strewn across the town – I decide me to make hay while the sun shone. Lunch was a delicious spicy chicken baguette with a slab of honeycomb cake and this was followed by short trips to Kendal and Keswick to make the most of my stay.
I had the luxury of having a six berth dorm room all to myself at the waterside YHA in Ambleside and I went to bed early to try and get as rested as possible. Kit was prepared, breakfast readied and I knew where I was going in the morning.
The organisers had suggested the pay & display car park in Ambleside, which given it was a few minutes from the start, made good sense. With water bottles now filled I headed to the start in Rothay Park and silently soaked up the friendly, banter atmosphere. I’ve grown rather accustomed to knowing runners at races, wherever I am, both here and abroad – so it was something of a surprise to not see any faces I knew. I wandered around a little bit before setting amongst the throng of ultra runners all keen for the start.
We were all instructed to dib our chips at the start which had been attached to us at registration. I found these mildly intrusive as they never felt very comfortable around the wrist and I fretted about them working loose and ending up in a puddle of mud somewhere on a hill. Thankfully it never did work loose but I found it uncomfortable compared to some of the alternatives that I’ve had to wear. That said the system was simple enough to use and the setup both at the start and at checkpoints was well thought out.
With an 8am start looming we were all corralled into the starting area and after a short briefing and some words of encouragement the 175(ish) runners burst forward and out of Rothay Park and into the wilderness. It’s fair to say that a number of ‘trail’ races that I’ve been part of have actually had quite significant amounts of road or tarmac involved but this experience was very different. From the near outset there was trail and nature surrounding the runners.
As we wound our way through the first few kilometres it was clear that this was going to be s tougher day than I had originally imagined and as I looked down at my faithful Suunto I could see the elevation metres quickly stacking up. Those first few miles were easily the simplest on the route and with excellent route marking even I couldn’t go wrong. We wended our way through the variety of trails, up and down hills and along some of England’s finest scenery. For the most part I was making good time against the other runners – using my preferred tactic of ‘go as fast as you cN for as long as you can and then death march it in’. I made sure I was taking on board regular fluids and even a little food from early in proceedings as this would ensure I could still take on everything late in the event. I topped up my intake with some Active Root, which is about the only electrolyte style supplement I can stomach, and this kept me level and stopped significant dips – something to consider if you’re running well.
I ran the first 15km pretty consistently and covered around 600 metres of climb – despite the recent rains the ground was in good condition and the route was runnable. Although I had poles with me I had decided that I would refrain from their use until I really needed them and despite the ascents I didn’t feel I needed them in the firs quarter of the event. The views were delightful and this was very much The Lake District of my youth – some places dragged up long forgotten memories and it was a very pleasant experience. It was here that I met Deborah – about 2.5 miles from the first checkpoint. We chatted for a while, as we bounded forward and this was such a pleasant experience that I barely noticed the run into the checkpoint.
Checkpoint one was brilliant with the marshalling team all dressed as chefs with big chef hats, the team were incredibly well drilled – timer, water, food, out, out, out! I was very impressed with the team and the organisation of the event on the whole, if I were to take a guess this was not their first rodeo. The quality of the food on offer was brilliant and as I left the checkpoint I felt buoyed by the energy the team have thrust upon me. In the distance I could see Deborah disappearing and continued my journey alone.
The second section was going to be tougher with the first 600 metres climbed this meant that there was still around 1700 metres to climb and around a marathon to do it in. 2 hours down – 12 hours to go. I knew that the first significant climb was soon to be upon us and in the distance twinkling like little neon and Lycra clad stars were a succession of slow moving runners as the route moved up a gear in toughness.
It was now that the route threw challenge after challenge at us, the trail had moved from being mostly runnable to being filled with big lumpy rocks, it was wet underfoot and it changed from soaking to dry making your shoe choice irrelevant in the face of the varying conditions. I threw open my poles for the first time and began the slow journey upwards, happy in the knowledge that I had built up a reserve of time in the early stages of the race. However, as I looked ever upwards it was with a deep sense of foreboding – this was the first and easiest ascent and it was far from easy.
I decided that given I still had some strength in my legs I would do the climb in bursts and so would have a short stop and then powered up the next couple of hundred metres, stop and repeat. This technique helps me with the fatigue my legs get from the constant ball achingly monotonous striding of hiking up the hills (something I knew I would be forced into later in the day). My lack of training in the last month and the over eating was also playing a significant part now in my performance – runners were passing me as I struggled with the up hills and the beating my feet were now taking. However, I knew that on the downhill as long as the path was relatively runnable I would be able to make up some ground. Where some runners are guarded about running downhill too quickly for fear of a fall I am usually pretty surefooted and confident in my own ability. Therefore once the peak was reached I felt that I had little choice but to open up the taps a bit and go for it.
My descent was as quick as my ascent was slow and I found myself able to catch some of the runners that had managed to overtake me and I felt with nearly 1,000 metres of ascent done and about 20km in distance done I was feeling confident and then the ridiculous kicked in – I slipped. Bang down – on my back, on my arse, on all my weakest points. The two young runners ahead of me turned and shouted to find out if I was okay and I waved them on but I was far from alright. My back, which is troubling at the best of times, had shooting pain running through it and I had cut my hand open in several places and was bleeding. I picked my muddy form off the floor and cursed my own stupidity – I ran down to the little stream and put my buff in the water and wrapped it around my hand attempting to soak up the blood. I had been very lucky, within a few minutes the bleeding had stopped and I managed to clean up the various gashes that now covered my left hand – the realisation was dawning upon me that this route was going to give me a good kicking before it was finished.
I pushed onwards through the next few kilometres, slowing a little to account for the worsening running conditions, the rocky terrain became incredibly hard going and in my opinion it felt more like fell running than it did ultra trail running but it all added to the complexity of the challenge of finishing. I finally reached the halfway point and was greeted by the most welcoming committee of marshals, supporters and runners. Given I was so far from the lead it was no surprise to see my fellow racers in various states of distress, I grabbed a bit of grass and threw my bag to floor and motored over to the food table and stuffed my face with the delicious sausage rolls with the amazing pastry (I’m going to assume veggie but don’t want to know as they were so delicious it would disappoint me to know I’d been eating something mildly healthy). I drank as much tea as I could handle, grabbed a bit of soft chewy cake, filled my water bottles and then followed the other runners out of the checkpoint.
It was here that I would make the relationship that would see me cross the finish line, though it did not begin well but I’ll get to that later.
From CP2 we were presented with a climb up Stake Pass, a beautiful climb and no mistake but a technical, rocky ascent that required maximum concentration all the way and its windy nature meant that you felt progress was even slower than it actually was. I used my brutish bursts of power to push myself up the pass and once more in the distance before and ahead of me I could see the swathes of runners slowly climbing to the summit. I kept telling myself that this is something I enjoy when moments of doubt would creep into my thinking but the reality was that my feet were burning from the damage that rocks underfoot where doing.
My feet are brittle at the best of times but the damp conditions coupled with the rocks were crippling me, the only plus I could find was that my Lone Peaks combined with Injinji liner and Drymax socks and my beloved Dirty Girls Gaiters were working overtime in protecting me from the worst of the route.
About halfway up local legend Keith passed me with his wonderfully consistent pace and all I could do when he went beyond me asking, ‘alright?’ I responded with, ‘had better days’ but Keith may have misinterpreted my joke for sincere annoyance and he simply shrugged his shoulder and pushed on. I thought nothing more of it really but like the cut of his pace and thought if I could keep up with him I might well be alright – but he, like many before, was soon gone.
I retreated the comfort of the nearest rock I could find and grabbed some food from my race vest and looked longingly into the middle distance as dark and detrimental thoughts crept across my furrowed brow. ‘More than halfway’ I thought, ‘but my feet are bruised to buggery, my race vest is heavy and worse than that my back and arm was on fire from injuries both old and new’. However, the sight of runners closing in on me made me get off my backside and hurl myself up the hill and eventually I made it to the summit. I could see some of the runners who had made it past me and so I picked Keith as my target – if I could catch him before the arrival of the next checkpoint I would continue.
The route off the pass was as unrunnable as the route up with rocks jutting up from every angle and care required about just where the hell you were putting your feet. If you were less cautious you might have avoided the path and run straight down the hill – but given I had no idea where I was or how far behind the next runner was – I did not fancy falling off Stake Pass. With all due care I made it to the bottom and leapt through the thick nasty smelling mud and crossing streams with all haste attempting to keep my feet as dry as possible. In the distance I could hear the clatter of Keith’s running poles and I realised I was catching him – having a target to aim for had made the journey much more focused and much easier and as I caught him I opened with the much cheerier line, ‘I’ve been chasing you down for ages – thanks for the incentive’ and from here a new race friendship was forged.
Keith was a bit of a running veteran and with 20 more years on the clock the than me he had well earned the right to legend status. He strode purposefully through the route, questioning the runability of some of the course but all the time remaining strong in his continuous push forward – I like Keith very much and over the next few miles we got to chatting and getting to know one another a little. But as is the rule in ultra marathons you run your own race and he reminded me of this several times as he suggested I not wait for him or that he would be waiting long for me. However, we were both moving at about the same speed ad so it turned out neither of us could shake the other one.
Something I was very glad of.
The road to CP3 was hard and long, we had come off the hill and now it was just finding the checkpoint, hoping that we would make the cut-off and then pushing through as fast as we could up the biggest ascent on the course – Lining Crag. While we both looked and probably felt a bit shitty we both also seemed to gain a newfound mental strength from each other – I certainly did from him and when I started to leave CP3 Keith joined me for some further adventuring.
The strange thing was that despite our low speed we were starting to catch people again and in the close distance we could see runners who had long left me behind and, though I shouldn’t, I was buoyed by seeing other runners finding this a challenge or perhaps I was simply developing a second wind that might carry over the Crag.
Sadly my second wind was very short lived and as I began the ascent I felt every bone in my body scream for mercy, even with the first few hundred metres being relatively gentle this was a climb of false summits and false hope.
One of the great things about Keith was his wide and varied local knowledge, this meant that he was able to be accurate in his assessment of our situation, so when we approached the scramble up to the crag I knew that this was not the summit and that there were further smaller climbs to come. The scramble was actually surprisingly simple and the change of pace on the legs was welcome, I enjoy scrambling although I don’t do it very often as I am terrified of heights. So I finally reached the safety of solid ground that wasn’t going to try and kill me I was very grateful. We made good time as we crossed the high ground and started to overtake people again and other runners came past us as they picked the pace up a little. On reflection it was nice to know that we were still in a race, often at these type of events you’ll find yourself alone for hours and hours and not knowing where in the race you are, here the numbers were just right to be able to have significant time alone but also know that you could still catch someone.
We knew that the final checkpoint was at about 53km in and so it was with a little dismay that the ascent to the top of the crag had pushed us forward a mere 2km of the 12km we needed to run. Running remained hard going over the rocky paths and went as fast and securely as we could but both Keith and I were losing our footing at regular intervals and many of the runners had soggy bottoms but perhaps none got the soggy bottom in the way I did.
While crossing a boggy path I lost my footing and into the mid thigh depth mud my leg went, the trouble was that my other leg followed me in and as I fell in my whole body lurched backward in some attempt to create the muddy equivalent of a snow fairy. Keith turned to face me, barely disguising his amusement at the predicament that I found myself in. I managed to stand in the mud and could feel the vacuum attempting to suck my shoes in but I carefully extracted one leg and then the other with no significant loss. I was caked in mud from head to toe but I had clearly picked the right kit for the event and my wonderful new Runderwear long boxer shorts and Raidlight Freetrail shorts soon dried off and despite being in 3 foot of wet, shitty mud my feet remained warm and toasty.
After picking myself up we headed along the remainder of the route down to Grasmere with little further incident, but we were aware that the final climb and descent had taken much, much longer than anticipated and I was keen to finish as I still had hours in the car driving back to Scotland.
I noticed that both Keith and I were rather quiet as we landed in Grasmere, tiredness was clearly playing a part but seeing the race organisers at the final checkpoint gave us a bit of a life and knowing that we were less than 10km from the finish was the mental nourishment we needed.
We had been quite quick in the checkpoints up until this point but we stayed a little longer in Grasmere as Keith knew both of the guys from The Climbers Shop (I’m going to go with Mike and Gill but could be wrong). Gill had been at the registration and she clearly remembered my idiotic face from the previous day and the warmth with which I was greeted felt genuine and heartfelt and for that I was very grateful. They tried to stuff our faces with all manner of food and drink but we were so close to the finish that I actually wanted just my water filled and then off and the guys obliged.
Keith and I were very keen to see off the race before the dark became impenetrable and with all the speed we could muster we set out from Grasmere. This final section had a few light climbs on it but it was mainly tarmac that we were following and there was nothing to concern ourselves with – I seem to recall that we spent most of the time on these final few miles being rather jolly and looking forward to food, drinks, showers and in Keith’s case being reunited with his wife and the lovely Border Colllies.
I remember Keith commenting that at this point he had one speed and although I had recovered a little bit and probably could have run this final section I had no desire to leave my companion behind and in truth I’d have only managed to get about a dozen metres ahead before he would have reeled me in again. Meeting Keith made the experience of the Ambleside 60 much more pleasant than it looked like it might have been given the struggles I know he played a huge part in me finishing on Sunday.
We rolled up to Rothay Park and the dark had finally arrived, we thanked the marshalling staff at the final corner and as is my way I tried to have a cheery word/joke and thank you for the guys who were stood there waiting in the cold ensuring that we didn’t take a wrong turn at the final point. In the dim distance I could make out the large finish line inflatable and in front of it were two dibbing points so that we could get a final time. It took me an age to get my bloody dibber in but once I did we were ushered into a tent and given medals, beer and times.
Keith’s wife was there with the dogs and I joined them briefly to thank him and to thank his wife for loaning me such a wonderful gentleman for the day.
starting from Rothay Park, the Ambleside Trail 60 is a 60km loop made up of some iconic Lake District running. From the park, participants will make their way up and over Loughrigg towards Skelwith Bridge, Tarn Hows and from there onwards towards Coniston. Before reaching Coniston, the route climbs above Coniston Coppermine and toward Lad Stones. Continuing onward, the route makes its way to Little Langdale and after a short but punchy climb reaches Blea Tarn. Runners then make their way up Stake Pass and then follow the Langstrath Beck before climbing back up Lining Crag, the biggest climb on the course. Runners descend into Grasmere and slowly wind their way back toward Ambleside..
I’ve run over 50 ultra marathons and I’ve run across some of the toughest trails in the crappiest conditions and I can honestly say that the route of the Ambleside 60km was a bit of a terror. I mentioned earlier that this felt more like an ultra distance fell race than a trail race. Although the path was defined it was, in parts, brutal – despite the shortness of the distance this was a route that really threw everything at you and there was a procession of the walking wounded on the course as the Ambleside 60 took no prisoners.
This is not a route for the inexperienced and had the weather conditions been worse then this would really have given the competitors a challenge that even more might not have finished. What I will say though is that the Ambleside 60 route gave so much back in views and beauty that you really can’t complain about the temporary pain inflicted by the course.
The climbs were tough, the variety was welcome and the route marking was exceptional – just a few less rocky roads would have made this a more complete running experience. Don’t misunderstand me though this was a brilliant route and I feel fortunate to have seen parts of the Lake District that only become accessible if you are willing to put the effort in. The highlight of the route for me was the second climb up Stake Pass, which as well as being as tough old boots, had the wonderful sound of gushing water on both sides of the pass, it had majesty all around it and there was a eeriness about it as you could see nothing of modern life as far as the eye could see – wonderful.
So, perhaps a few little tweaks to make sure that this doesn’t become an ‘only suitable for the mountain goats’ and the route cold be a real winner for everyone wanting to take part.
The organisation was 100% top notch, from registration to the near army of marshals that were posted on the course – this was some of the best organisation I have ever seen. The route marking for the most part was fantastic, the little map we received at the start was perfect as a guide and the pre and post race information was concise and informative. A huge thank you should go to all the organisers and especially the marshalling and medical staff who offered friendly faces all over the day. Races like this do not happen without the support of lots of people behind the scenes – and it was clear that the work they had put in here had really paid off.
I go mountain running most weekends and I go hill running after work and I know what kit I need to carry with me, I know how to be safe in the mountains and in adverse weather conditions and to that end I felt that the mandatory kit list was a little over complicated. I understand completely that safety comes first and that not all runners are experienced in the hills but there does need to be a balance. I did note that a number of the runners had very small amounts of kit with them and you had to wonder how where they fitting all the mandatory kit into such a small space?
Given my back issues carrying all the required kit was always going to be one of the main challenges I faced during the Ambleside 60 and I have a preference to carry specific things that help my individual race needs. For example I have my ridiculously weak feet so spare socks are a must and I’m known to take a picture or two so spare battery is also an essential. But rules are rules and it is important that we all adhere to them – they are designed to ensure your safety isn’t compromised, might just be worth looking next year about a little more flexibility between the mandatory and recommended kit.
Having great sponsors like Rab and Ultimate Directions mean that sometimes there are excellent goodies and this time there was a delightful Rab beanie available pre-race and post race there was some Hawkshead Brewery beer, which if you’re a beer drinker is a great reward for a job well done – obviously as a teetotaller the beer is less relevant to me but I know someone who’ll drink it for me. The medal was nice and understated, which seemed very much in keeping with the whole ethos of the event and I appreciated that. I wore my medal proudly all the way home to Scotland and as I crawled up the stairs to my bedroom upon returning home I made sure that it took its rightful place with its brother and sister medals at the top of the stairs.
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it, the value for money aspect is very much down to personal opinion about your experience. I very much believe that the Ambleside 60 was excellent value for money at £65 and to be fair if you’d charged a little more it would still have represented good value for money. The little goodies, the excellent event staff, the support both before and after, the photography and the challenge of the event itself mean that you have to say you really did get bang for your buck. Some people might bemoan the lack of race T-shirt but the truth is I would rather have had the beanie – it’s always nice to get something useful that most races don’t think about.
I owe this finish to Keith – I would not have made it without you. Thank you.
Is this a great race? Not yet.
Does this have the potential to be a great race? Oh yes!
2019 as its inaugural running was a damn fine event, it gave the best views of Ambleside and its surrounds that I’ve ever had the honour of laying my eyes on. The Ambleside 60 has much to recommend it and if you’re lucky enough to have a clear day as we did then you’ll bear witness to a visual treat. The medal for this one really is worth earning and you will feel like you have accomplished something truly spectacular when, or perhaps more appropriately, if you cross the finishing line. The organisation of the race, for me, makes this one stand out in the memory too – there was genuine care for the runners and that should be recognised, nobody got anything less than 100% from the excellent team.
However, this isn’t perfect I’ve mentioned that it felt like a long distance fell run in places and the course was incredibly hard going at times, even in good conditions. I genuinely believe more responsibility should be on the individual regarding kit choices and I’d probably prefer to see the race run on a Saturday to give runners the Sunday and a chance to rest for their weary bones before a return to grindstone of work on a Monday (I found the drive back to Scotland really tough and Monday was weird in the office). However, if nothing changed, if the race came back next year in exactly the same format would I run it again? The answer is 100% yes, there is something special about the Ambleside 60 and it deserves its soon to be well established reputation as a tough as old boots brilliant ultra marathon.
So if you’ve read this and thought, he sounds likes you had a horrible time, then you’ve misunderstood me, there was no misery for me just a real ball busting challenge – which is primarily what I look for in an ultra marathon and if it is what you look for then you’re going to have a mighty fine time.
I’d signed up to the Ben Vorlich Ultra on the back of my entry the Ochil Ultra (also organised by Wee Run Events) and to be fair had not really done much research – but I knew that it ran up a mountain I had been keen to climb and when you combine this with a bit of running then how could you possibly go wrong?
I drove down to the Cultybraggan Camp from sunny Polmont to ensure I left the start line at the earliest possible time – so it was an early kick off. Thankfully the roads were clear and I’d gotten up in time to get ready properly and have breakfast – something that often eludes me pre-race and I always pay the price for it later. Sadly my early morning coffee had not worked other things loose so that might become a problem later in the race (but I did have my tissues with me).
Preparations had been somewhat disrupted that weekend by the GingaNinja having to work late on Friday night, my daughter spending the rest of Friday evening puking her guts up and my Saturday being taken up by the purchase and installation of a treadmil in my garage.
Still it was now Sunday morning and I had arrived, registration was swift and clear – my number, tracker and timing band were handed over. There were decent facilities at Cultybraggan Camp (including what looked like the option of showers). The weather was reasonable, so as a consequence the runners were milling around the starting point rather than being huddled in vehicles or hiding in the registration hut.
The race should have kicked out at 7am, with the runners being allowed to leave anytime after this point – the only stipulation being that you were finished by 10pm – there was small delay to sending us out but nothing significant and with the shout ‘Go!’ we were sent on our merry way.
I felt that the pace of the runners ahead of me was going to be significantly faster than I, and I was right. A lack of training, fitness and being overweight meant that I was going to drop back pretty quickly, however, I didn’t really consider this a problem as I knew that my participation was more about completing the event than trying to get a decent time.
The route headed out of Cultybraggan and towards Comrie along a deep dark path along the River Earn – there were lovely tree roots everywhere, there was mud and there was waist high grass, stinging nettles and thorns that on a wet day would give you some strife. I bounded along the route here thinking that if the entire route was like this then we’d be in for a really good time. This lasted for a couple of miles before arring at the delightful, chocolate box town of Comrie, at 7.30 in the morning Comrie was a sleepy village with a few dog walkers out but later in the day the GingaNinja informed me that it very much became a hotbed of English tourists visiting the area – presumably to taste what she described as he best fish and chips she had ever had.
The route wound its way towards Loch Earn via an old railway line, much of which, for the first half, has been transformed to what can only be described as excellent cycle paths, while the back end is a little more hard packed trail but ultimately both sections were very runnable.
I found myself making rather better time than I imagined I was going to given that my longest run since returning to running has been 19km. Although I was near the back of the pack I really did not mind – I was enjoying the moderate solitude of the event and the surrounds were truly stunning and as I hadn’t been to the Trossachs before I considered this a real opportunity.
I bimbled along the route until arriving into the first checkpoint where I was greeted by some of the lovely race volunteers – water, timing point and importantly a toilet where on offer and I was grateful for the water as my own supply was being quickly exhausted by the conditions which felt a little muggy on this side of the loch (and I do poorly once conditions warm up)!
After a lovely little chat with the checkpoint team I headed out again with a greater understanding of the task at hand. Having trundled along one side of Loch Earn it was now time to travel the opposite side and head to the finish – with just the small matter of Ben Vorlich to negotiate.
Where the first section had been the old converted railway line, this track was the road that ran alongside the loch. Even though it was festooned with signs saying this was ‘walker and cyclist friendly’ I was unconvinced and therefore happy, whenever I met a vehicular foe, to step aside into the undergrowth to allow them to pass. This slowed my progress to the climb and had I been either braver or faster I would probably have made life a little tighter for the drivers, but I’m not, so I didn’t.
There was a gentle breeze around the water which made for pleasant running but still I was hugely grateful to see the checkpoint and my drop bag full of goodies. I helped myself to two chocolate milkshakes, a curry pie and a caramel Freddo (yes I know how to live it up) and also caught up with Ed who was looking for his first ultra finish.
He asked, ‘still going up?’
To which my reply was, ‘of course’.
It was at this point that the race leader flew into the checkpoint and I felt that actually I must be doing okay as he was only an up and down faster than I was! and so with a cheery wave to the volunteers I headed up – little knowing what was awaiting me.
How much I regretted that decision on the way up – but I wasn’t to fully appreciate that until about 20 minutes into my ascent as realisation crept across my brow. As I started my ascent I noted the succession of runners all making their way down, all looking strong, all contenders for the lead if truth be told, whereas I looked out of place and exhausted – but regardless I moved relentlessly forward.
I had also noted that some of the runners where choosing to use poles – something that I had considered but then given I came to Scotland to learn how to race up mountains without poles it seemed silly to use them here, as this was a genuine test of my training in the nearby home hills. However, as I passed the RD by the side of the path, counting us on the mountain and off it, I regretted my poles decision but, I put in all the effort I could and even when the weather started to close in I simply put on my jacket and dug in.
The path up Ben Vorlich is clear and easy to follow but it’s rocky, technically demanding and unrelentingly steep with a number of little false summits that lull you into a false sense of completion.
I lumbered my way up and around the loose rock, bruising the underside of my feet as I leaped over sections of tricky wet rock and landing upon sharp jagged stones. As each metre was added to my Suunto ascent total I knew I was slowly nearing the top and as the final peak to the top of the Ben presented itself I pushed hard into the mist – determined to make it.
Being scared of heights made this all the more terrifying at the final moment and I bent down to hands and knees as I thundered that final 10 metres of climb to touch the trig point and grab some photographs. I probably spent 10 minutes up there admiring the view before I remembered this was a race and quickly set off. I say quickly but when you look down from Ben Vorlich you realise just how steep it is and you are forced to slow down. Here I saw Ed for what would be the final time and for the first time I realised that if I wanted to finish anything other than last I would have to move quicker.
Once clear of the most severe of the descent I pressed harder down the hill, throwing myself at the rocks and refusing to slow until I saw the RD once more. ‘Alright?’ he said. ‘Got what I came for,’ I replied, ‘to climb Ben Vorlich’ and with that I said goodbye and pressed downwards to the checkpoint once more. My legs were like jelly when I hit the bottom but despite this I offered two young ladies (I’ll assume related to the marshalls) a race back to the checkpoint – which while a physical mistake was a brilliant boost mentally.
I spent a few minutes with the checkpoint guys, again – properly awesome – and then kicked on knowing that the Ben Vorlich Ultra, for me, had gone from a test of the physical to a test of mental strength. My legs were battered to pieces but I knew they would make it – the problem was going to be knowing that I would be retracing my steps back to the finish and knowing that I had finished with the superb views of mountains. However, there was still the remainder of Loch Earn to negotiate and given how my body was feeling this too was going to be testing. I walked a couple of those road kilometres to try and reduce the effect on my back, hip flexor, right calf and bowels but when I got back to the turn for home I knew I had to start running again.
Thankfully it was about here that the rain kicks in properly and I felt quite content jumping back into my beloved Montane Minimus and I adopted the faithful run/walk strategy through the next 12km or so and it wasn’t until I knew I was in the home strait that I was willing to open the taps a little more and on the old railway I began to run. I smiled as I passed through Comrie and I upped the pace a little further through the trails, refusing to slow even when the waist high grass soaked my feet – I could smell home or so I thought.
The GPS route shouted at me, ‘you’re here’ but as I looked around I can assure you I wasn’t! Frantic I looked round for a sign, it looked so familiar but I was in meltdown – I called the GingaNinja and said, ‘I’m at Cultybraggan Farm but I don’t know where…’ and as I turned round I saw the old barracks in the distance. I’ll be honest I let out a little tear and then put my foot on the accelerator – I ran to the gates and saw my daughter waiting at the far end. I dare not disappoint and so I gave it all I had as she gave some welly to the cow bells.
As I approached ASK she asked to run those final few metres with me and so as a family we all crossed the line. Awesome. Never have I been so happy to finish a race.
Damn good but brutal fun.
Distance: 60km (ish)
Profile: Deceptive and killer
Date: July 2019
Location: Loch Earn
Terrain: Very Mixed
Tough Rating: 2.5/5
This is an odd one as I really hate tarmac and there was a decent amount of tarmac here but there was also a decent amount of trail, the views for the most part were spectacular and the route would cover most bases for all but the most dogmatic of trail runners. Therefore I have to say I really, genuinely enjoyed it.
Obviously I was there for Ben Vorlich itself and so the low road that ignored it would not have interested me as much but the going up the mountain really makes this a race to do. That said the route without the mountain climb would make for a really good and fast short distance ultra with only a few hundred metres of climb across the 50km. Ultimately the route has a little bit of something for everyone. I’d say if you’re looking to move up from marathon then the 50km is ace, if you like a bit of tough as old boots climbing then the 60km will test you and if you like something else we’ll you’ll probably enjoy it anyway.
I was supposed to run the Ochil Ultra last year with Wee Run Events but given I was moving up to Scotland that day I had to DNS. Therefore I was very much looking forward to meeting the guys as I’d heard the Ochils was a really nice, well organised event. It’s worth taking into account this was a first running of the Ben Vorlich Ultra and as an inaugural event though you expect the team to be ironing things out a little as they find their feet but actually it all seemed pretty smooth – yes there was a minor delay in setting off but this served only to make sure that as many people as possible set off together. The checkpoints were sound and there was water at every stop – what more do you need? The route signage was really good, the marshals were all brilliant, the supplied map was okay, there was tracking and a timing chip and most importantly there was a good base camp which meant your supporters didn’t have to freeze to death. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can bestow is that the RDs looked very much liked they cared about the race and the runners.
Nicely designed vest (would love a technical version of it, even if this was a race extra) and a cute bespoke wooden medal which was really nice. All the Scottish races I’ve done so far have avoided too many frills and this was no exception the focus has instead been on a couple of really nice items rather than lots of rubbish.
Value for Money
This is always very subjective but the Ben Vorlich Ultra was well organised and well executed. The bespoke medal, cheery volunteers and live tracking, for me, ensure this is well on the right side of good value. As runners you don’t always get to see how much hard work goes on behind the scenes but these guys earned much kudos and I have no hesitation in saying you’d feel it was money well spent if you signed up for the 2020 edition of the Ben Vorlich Ultra.
Interesting route, great mountain to climb and a lovely medal for completing a tough ultra at the shorter end of the distances we run. Don’t be fooled though and do not underestimate the challenge of Ben Vorlich on the high or the low route as it will give you a kicking if you fail to show respect. The organising team and the volunteers were fabulous on the day and deserve a lot of credit for making it a smooth and enjoyable experience.
I had my issues on the day such as a lack of fitness and a tummy that has been giving me some grief recently (and a rusty bullet hole post race that is so hot I dare not go near it) but that has nothing to do with my conclusions about the race I just wanted to ensure that you, dear reader, understand that despite my relative lack of action both in running and blogging I’ll never forget to add a bit of poo to a race tale.
On a more serious note there are improvements that could be made – a bit more trail running on the route in the second half would make it easier on jelly legs and perhaps an FAQ section on the website to answer questions like, ‘can you use poles?’
Both of these I feel would elevate a really good race to an unmissable race. However, take nothing away from this event it was brilliant and it’s small tweaks rather than significant change that I feel would benefit everyone. The one significant change I might consider would be a single start time – I do like the starting with everyone else and think it might make it easier logistically for the race team but then I can see the flip side that it’s not a massive distance and so you are enabling runners from further afield to attend.
Ultimately I’d give this a go, it’s an unusual ultra but all the better for defying expectations and if I can offer one recommendation and that is I’d always take the high road – it really is worth it. And if it’s any measure of how much I enjoyed it, yes I would certainly go again.
I’ve long come to terms with the fact I’m not just a terrible runner but a terrible ultra runner – even after half a century of completed ultra events I still find them hard and I still fail at them more than I would like.
With that in mind I had entered the Nocturnal Ultra and had decided to try and squeeze a post marathon distance in with just 6 hours available on the clock.
But lets roll back a week to the previous Saturday when I was full of delirium, cold and with a huge desire to hide inside a big fluffy blanket, running was the last thing on my mind. However, with the last few months having been so hectic I find ultra racing to be a bit of therapy and also provides the necessary bolt right up my arse that will set me up for exhausting period known as the final push up to Scotland.
And so I did no running in the two weeks before the event, instead each night I wrapped up in my big hoody and a waterproof jacket and went walking for an hour or more after work. And so when Saturday came I felt reasonable albeit with even less training done than normal in running terms.
Because the race started at 4pm I didn’t start my kit check and pack until about 11am on the Saturday and there was also a decent soak in the bath to have. Unfortunately there also the worst case of the pre-race shits too – could it have been the large quantity of houmous I had eaten less than 18 hours earlier? Perhaps.
Anyway a series of delays meant that I didn’t set off for the race until quite late and I was clearly rushing down the motorway rather than taking my preferred relaxed bimble. I had largely been hoping to arrive early so that I could avoid the second car park which I knew was going to be in a field of some description and my driving skill is not really that good and I was worried about getting in and getting out of said field. None of my fears were put to bed as I slid the little car around the wet grass attempting not to kill any of the very helpful marshals.
Thankfully with a minimum of fuss I managed to park up and grab my kit – only loosely concerned that the race was starting in 45 minutes and I was still in civilian dress and my kit was spread across a couple of drop bags.
I had never been to Fox Lake before and was surprised by just how much opportunity there was for outdoor fun both on and off water and I suspect I’ll be returning in a non-ultra runner capacity in the future. However, what is more important was that I made the tent for the pickup of my number with more than enough time and the process was both quick and painless. There was also a good number of marshals directing runners and supporters around the race village.
Perhaps the only real problem of the race village is also one of the main benefits – the fixed Fox Lake facilities are fixed and there isn’t that much room to expand them and the amount of runners in the available space was quite a lot. But the benefits are that there was lots of cover and there were changing cubicles and showers and good food facilities. It’s a difficult balance to get right and the organisers gave a strong showing in moving runners around and getting them to the right place.
I slipped into the aforementioned changing cubicles and found myself hurriedly getting ready – probably a bit too hurriedly and when I strapped myself into my UD PB3.0 I realised I had packed it rather uncomfortably. Still with time against me I’d just have to adjust myself once we had set off – it wasn’t like I was aiming for the win.
There was a very full race briefing prior to the off and then the start line filled up with runners of all types. Seconds later we were off and into the beginnings of night – this was going to be an interesting event.
Much like myself many runners had decided to not run with a headtorch for the first lap presumably in an effort to conserve battery power and also to limit the effects of the tunnel vision that can occur when using a headtorch for extended periods. And in truth there was just about enough light to get us round the first fifteen minutes but when I reached the halfway point of the first loop I pressed the on switch – it was too dark too continue without light.
The lap that would make up the next six hours of my life was really quite pleasant and surprisingly varied, it was all very in and out of tree lined trails with a good dollop of slick mud that was only going to get more wretched the more the runners passed through it. The weather had been mostly unkind in the days leading up to the race but on Saturday the lords of wind and rain had decided to have the day off and so we were left with delightful evening running conditions.
I’m sure I was not the only one grateful that the heavier conditions would only come from the thousands of footprints that would litter the course and not from more wind and rain.
The route started out nice and dry on good gravel track before sending you through a multi-coloured and illuminated forest section. The switchback then thrust you through a short downhill and along a faster straight section to the only real uphill before you hit the mile of mud as I came to know it. However, once you were clear of this it was mostly a straight run home and into the next lap. Although I shared the same thought of other runners that the final stretch back up to the start point felt much longer than the 800 metres suggested.
I was in good form and ran the first lap faster than I anticipated – very much getting caught up in the excitement of my fellow runners but also probably pacing myself against the relay runners – which is never a very smart idea.
I had decided that I would stop on each lap and fill up on both Active Root – a drink that I knew wasn’t going to upset my stomach after my experience of it at Jedburgh – and the Lucozade in my drop bag (which I was jealous of in Neil MacRitchies arsenal at the Tweed Valley Ultra a couple of weeks earlier).
I was being strict in my timings as I knew that I needed 9 laps for the ultra distance and to say that my second and third lap were ‘shit’ would be offensive to the word ‘shit’. Perhaps this is where the idea that I’m a rubbish runner comes from and therefore in my head I knew that I cold’t make it, I was doing the maths in my head – I’m going too slow.
Lap 4 came and went and I had managed to pick my feet up a little and I was taking Active Root on board like it was crack cocaine but I was so behind time that I’d be lucky to hit 7 laps within the time – not even the sound of the music barn was enough to get me going fast enough to put me on time.
Bob Marshall Photos
I needed some incentive.
At the start of the next I called my daughter and when she asked where I was I replied, ‘I’m in a race.’ Such is the innocence of my four year old adventurer that she followed up her initial line of inquiry with, ‘are you winning? are you going to win a medal?’
‘I’m trying my best’
I knew this was a lie though and I knew that if I was to honestly claim that ultra medal I was really going to have to sort myself out, ‘listen you get to sleep,’ I said, ‘I’ll go and get the medal’.
Push UltraBoy, push!
And I did. I started to do something I haven’t done in years – I started overtaking people, I started to race but not against the other people on the course but against the clock, against my own fragile body. I ran the flats, I ran the mud, I ran the uphills and I opened the taps to give my legs some respite from the general crawl that makes up my ultra pace.
I hurtled through lap 6 and then lap 7 and I arrived on lap 8 with about 69 minutes remaining – all I needed to do was push one last time and I would be through the timing barrier and I could take all night if I needed to for lap 9 and so with thunder in my feet I flew through the HQ tent and pressed onwards to that medal that my daughter wanted me to earn.
It is rare for me to feel strong in a race (especially so late on) and even though the two fast laps had really drained me I was surprised by own invention as I convinced myself that I really had no time to get through to that final lap. I was slower on lap 8 than the previous couple but I was bearing down on the line to that final lap and I knew I would make it.
I stopped once more at the Active Root stand and had another short conversation with the two amazingly lovely ladies there and they simply gave me the thumbs up saying, ‘one more lap and we’ll see you back here in 20 minutes’.
20 minutes later.
I was out on the course, I was about halfway round the final lap and I was counting down to the final moments of the six hours we were allocated and I was waiting for the fireworks display signal.
I stopped as I heard a countdown in the distance and then the fireworks went off. I had officially made it – all I had to do now was run it in and claim my medal and this I did with some joy in my heart. I ran through the covered forest just outside the race village and as I closed in on the final few hundred metres I raised my knees and committed the best sprint finish I could muster and with the wind in my sails I passed straight over the line and into the waiting arms of my medal!
Distance: 5km (ish) loops
Profile: Minor up and down
Date: December 2018
Location: Fox Lake, East Lothian
Terrain: Muddy trail
Tough Rating: 2/5
The route was interesting and fun but ultimately it is a loop and if loops are not your thing then this race is not for you. It is worth noting though that the night time nature of the race gives the loop a less repetitive feel than similar daytime events. The added danger of the time and year and the potential for difficult weather conditions means that this route should not be under estimated. As well as an excellent event route this would make a wonderfully fast training route.
Great marshals who were well drilled in what they had to and where they had to be.
I also liked the roaming nature of the marshals around the course – being set in the dark means that there is more potential for injury or trouble and the organisation clearly took this very seriously. Overall the organisation was top notch – especially given the occasionally cramped feel of the race village. The one thing that might benefit from some consideration is a slightly bigger drop bag stop for the solo runners as this was sometimes a little crowded but if any delay was had then it was very minor.
I’d also like to say a tremendous thank you to the two ladies at the Active Root table as their inspiring and occasionally arse kicking words really did keep me going.
An excellent bespoke medal
Value for money
£50 seems about right for this, there is a lot of support and clearly lots of organisation that goes into making it happen and the medal was one of the more interesting ones I’ve had in recent times.
10 weeks living in Scotland and 3 ultra marathons done since I arrived, even I can feel pretty good about that.
The Nocturnal Ultra is a fun end of year event to keep you running but that perhaps does it a disservice. This is a great event that might be the culmination of a years hard training and if you’re looking a trail run that is fast and tough enough then maybe this is perfect for you. The event has a little bit of everything and the six hour time limit really gives it an edge that means you have to keep moving, especially if you’re not as quick as you once where. And the added bonus is that the location was lovely and it was close enough to Edinburgh to be accessible.
Post Jedburgh I felt a little bit weird, I had done so little training in the past year but had finished and felt surprisingly strong. I was, and remain confident, that I could have run Jedburgh significantly better and if I could just get settled properly in sunny Scotland then I might finally develop the time to commit to running.
And so there was an opportunity to add a November ultra to my schedule after pulling out of the 135 mile Rebellion. There was no way that I could have risked myself on such a significant distance given the state I find my body in and the level of running I am at.
However, I have been wanting to try High terrain events for a little while now and so the opportunity to run the now relatively local ‘Tweed Valley Ultra’ was too good to miss.
I got up at about four in the morning, showered and slapped on a tub full of Vaseline around the nether regions (having had a few problems during Jedburgh). I was determined that this was going to go well – I even applied a little to the toe tips as I’d had some serious blisters for the first time in years during the three peaks and wanted to avoid that as I suspected the Tweed Valley was going to be a tougher test.
The drive down from Edinburgh was nice and easy but being on my own for ultras is a new thing and I knew that I would also have to drive back on dark and narrow roads and that is something I’m going to have to get used to as I increase my activity up here. However, after a few minutes of driving aimlessly round the Glentress Visitor Centre I found the signage that I had missed when I first arrived.
I was, as usual, early – thankfully I prefer to be excessively early rather than a minute late and the facilities of the visitor centre were open to the runners and it was both warm and comfortable with breakfast available for those of those that could stomach it. I had made the mistake of taking my coffee too late before I’d left and was forced into visiting the little boy’s room for my pre-race delivery of the galloping trots. I can thankfully report that there was lots of loo roll and a warm toilet seat – a real treat compared to some of my pre-race toilet experiences.
I trotted over to the race registration for which the process was nice and easy (a necessity at 6.30am), name, number and grab a race t-shirt. Once I had collected my rather comfortable Tweed Valley t-shirt and grabbed some more hot coffee I took a seat and looked around to take in some of the faces that I might later be running alongside. I knew that Neil MacRitchie, John Munro and Fiona Rennie were running – all of whom I had first met at the Skye Trail Ultra a couple of years ago. I’ve run into Neil subsequently (most recently at Jedburgh) and John and I have run in the same races a couple of times but never really at the same pace as he’s a damn fine ultra marathoner and I’m well… me.
Anyway, I failed to run into anyone I knew and was concerned that this was likely to be a bit of a lonely race. I’d undoubtedly be near the back and I wonder if being cut adrift from fellow competitors is one of the things that has resulted in several of my race failures. However, with a few minutes to go I headed up to the start line, a final wee stop and I ran into a chap who had run the Skye Trail Ultra the year after I did it and we had a little laugh about the ever wonderful Jeff Smith and how we had found that particular race.
David (I think his name was) was going to be going much quicker than I was and so when the race started we all thundered down the short path to the trail. Much to my own surprise I was keeping up with the middle of the pack runners quite happily but knew that it was never going to last and so into the first climb I made the conscious decision to slow down and go into slow grind mode. One of the things that I knew awaited us in the early part of the event was a climb, what I had not expected was quite how early it began or how long it would last.
As we started to climb I could feel the energy being sapped out of my legs and that was something that I was aware would come to bite me later (or perhaps sooner) in the race. The good news was that the trails were good, the weather was being exceptionally pleasant and the ground was very runnable, the bad news was that I was going to struggle to find an excuse as to why I was running so badly.
One thing I did note which I thought ‘’bugger’ about was that there were a number of the runners with poles safely stowed in their vests. Perhaps it is being in Scotland but I’ve been trying to give up the running poles as up here they mostly are not allowed but, being honest, even as we reached the summit of the first climb I was wishing that I had them. At the top I could feel my thighs burning and that was a sensation I had not expected quite so quickly – still this did not stop me from hitting the downhill with all the energy I could muster and running down was a lot of fun. The trail was still good, the conditions were still good, the light was up and you could throw yourself amongst the rocks and the roots and know that a confident approach would get you out of it safely.
The exit to the forest brought us to the river (let’s take a guess at the Tweed) and from here it was good running and I should have been going as fast as possible but I was somewhat hampered by a need to have my guts explode out of me. Sadly it was a little exposed and so I was forced into deep breathing and scampering along clenching my arse cheeks! Thankfully the first of the four checkpoints was nearby and with it was the opportunity to dip in to the toilet. I think I need to note to down my pre-race preparation as this isn’t the first time I’ve been caught a bit short mid-race!
Anyway enough of the traditional gut rot… with that clear I was now on my way and feeling much better about the race. The thing I took in was just how beautiful the Tweed Valley was and with the mist drifting around the route, especially in the early hours, there was an even more spectacular eerie beauty. However, it is worth noting that while there was a majority of the route on trail there was a noticeable amount of tarmac in the first 20km which my long standing injuries did not enjoy. Thankfully I was soon upon checkpoint 2 and I ate and drank my way through a load of flapjacks and better than that, about a litre of Irn Bru (a theme for the race).
After a few sunny minutes at checkpoint 2 I headed out and took aim at the biggest climb on the route (Minch Moor) – in real terms only about 400 metres but it felt like a lot more, especially in the first section of the climb where it was surprisingly steep. Once at the top though it became an undulating trail and once again the Tweed Valley offered stunning views in all directions. Ian, a chap I had met earlier in the day had explained how wonderful the Valley was, and he right.
The undulation was now in my favour and I was racing towards the turn off point for the 65km or would it be the turn off point for the 50km? Would I drop down to the lower distance option?
It was then that a race angel came thundering past me in the shape of John Munro.
As he went past me in his lurid Compressport calve sleeves a part of me recognised him but I could not for the life of me place the face. We exchanged race pleasantries as people do but then he turned around and called out my name at which point I put two and two together and we had a lovely little chat. He was on the 50km and going past me at pace and I did not want the rest of the 50km to go past me and so when I reached the turn off point I jauntily pressed on past the lovely marshall and once more began ascending.
After a few minutes I turned around and stared back into what was increasingly becoming a lonely and empty trail. I assumed I was now at the back of the field and wondered if it was possible to run the final 26 miles alone. I opened a caramel Freddo and chomped down on the mildly melted chocolate, turned on my heel and continued to shuffle forward.
It seemed that the ghost of Skye was not yet done with me though and shortly after I had finished my Freddo I heard the sound of footsteps behind me. Surely I was going quicker than the sweeper – my time really was not that bad (not that good either to be fair). I shot a glance over my shoulder and, blow me, I recognised the silhouette of one of my favourite ultra runners…
I’m sure he didn’t recognise me at first but that did not deter me from asking, ‘are yo stalking me?’ I knew it would be a short term mental reprieve but it was just the kind of boost I needed and we started to run together for a bit. Neil being the ultimate ultra runner is always full of good advice about races, events, logistics and well just everything and therefore it is always a pleasure to chat with him for a bit.
Together we reached the Three Brethren which was an unexpected delight and we were making pretty good time. Unusually though neither of us had managed to shake the other and suddenly 10km had passed and we were drifting into the checkpoint. I had been feeling a little bit rough and ready in the last 20 minutes and so took the opportunity to drink lots of Irn Bru. We speculated once again that we might be bringing up the rear but we saw a fellow runner at the checkpoint and suddenly we there was a sense that we might not be the final finishers.
Post giggle with the volunteers we headed out again – a little bit of tarmac, ruinous for me but as Neil identified, change is as good as a rest (NB. he’s wrong about that – a rest is always better than change). The route for the most part here was reasonably flat with bits of undulation here and there. We adopted a fartlek approach to the running or wherever we saw a hint of a downhill.
It was around here that things got weird when I ran into a web developer that my company are hiring to help build the businesses new website. I hadn’t recognised him at all until he called my name out and then it took me a second to figure out who it was (we’d only met the once) but it did make me go, ‘weird!’
Anyway with the fartlek in full swing and my Irn Bru power disappearing faster than a Usain Bolt hundred metres I was really struggling once again and I suggested that we were far enough in that I was not going to DNF and that Neil should continue without me. However, he gave me ‘the talk’ and we pushed on to the checkpoint.
The Irn Bru Saga
Holy poo! How much Irn Bru can one man drink? You’d think I’d been sponsored by them – I probably downed another litre or so of what I described as Ambrosia and I consumed several delicious pieces of flapjack. This was intended to power me through the final phase and I had no intention of stopping now but Neil was looking strong and I really was not.
Neil let me walk off my Irn Bru burping as we headed back towards the river and then explained he was going to employ a step count for running but after the first 100(200) running steps I could tell I was done and I insisted that he go on without me. No amount of Irn Bru was going to get me through this and with the light fading it seemed rather unfair to ruin the finish time for both of us. Thankfully though I was willing to give the step count a final crack and I found a second wind and the pace we were moving at was bumbling but steady. In no time at all we were through the little housing estate, past the café and onto the path by the river.
I finally knew were I was but I also knew that the downhill at the start was now set to become a terrifying, in the dark, race to the finish.
We managed to avoid putting our headtorches on until we reached the forest and the climb. It was here I felt I could smell the finish and found myself reaching for another gear as I pressed the pair of us into a reasonably pacey death march. Climb, climb, climb I could hear in my head. We had almost reached the summit when we stopped briefly for a hint of respite and in the distance we both thought we saw the twinkling of a headtorch – this was all we both needed to make sure we did not drop the pace.
BOOM. We were off.
We pushed onwards but more importantly downwards – all the time watching my Suunto as it passed 65km and then 66km and then 67km. I was dog tired and sore and all I wanted was the finish. The down to the finish would have been challenging enough in the light but in the dark it was frustratingly challenging and neither of us wanted to take a tumble at this late stage. In the distance between the trees though we finally saw the twinkling of lights and realised we had made it – we tumbled down to the bottom of the final rise whereupon I insisted we jog over the finish line.
And laughing as we crossed the finish line is all you can hope for when you’ve just survived the awesome Tweed Valley Ultra. Great race.
Distance: 65km (68km)
Profile: Deceptive and beautiful
Date: November 2018
Location: Tweed Valley (Near Peebles)
Tough Rating: 2.5/5
The route for the Tweed Valley Ultra was quite interesting in that the trail bits where spectacular and some of the good paths/tarmac were pleasant. If you have never been to the Tweed Valley then you’d really enjoy the sights and in fairness if you were a a regular in the Tweed Valley I’m confident this will take you on new and exciting paths.
The changing nature of the surfaces made this a mostly runnable event although having a steep climb at the start did sap the energy from my legs and meant I felt like I was constantly playing catch-up with own fitness levels.
Fabulous volunteers and marshals who all had a massive smile for the runners and for whom nothing seemed too much trouble. As for organisation this has to be rated as top notch – everything worked. The website, the GPX file, the map and the pre race event notes were mostly comprehensive and the on the day organisation at both the start and the finish is to be highly commended.
A bespoke medal and a good quality t-shirt (and as much Irn Bru as I could drink).
Value for money
£50 is an excellent price for this well organised and friendly ultra from a company that is attracting both the seasoned ultra runners as well as first timers. If you fancy spending a few pennies with High Terrain Events then you will not be disappointed
I would very much like to say thank you to the awesome Neil MacRitchie for always being there for his fellow ultra runners no matter the state they find themselves in.
I’ve now been living in Scotland for 8 weeks, I arrived the day I should have run the Ochil Ultra, I ran Jedburgh with no training and now I’ve completed the Tweed Valley with nothing more than a tenacious attitude and a lot of Vaseline. This is a great race and for me it was made all the better by coming across lots of lovely ultra runners. High Terrain should take pride in the fact that they are putting on a really, really good event, suitable for all levels of ultra runner and I am now seriously considering Kielder for 2019.
Having run lots and lots of races I’ve come across lots and lots of race organisation. It’s fair to say that mostly race organisation has been really good but occasionally you do find that there are ones that stink to high heaven.
However, this post looks to celebrate the ones I’ve found the absolute best and if good race management and strong organisational skills are your thing then maybe you should consider these guys
I’d heard so many good things about XNRG that I didn’t think it could possibly be true. However what I noticed about my running with them was how they had managed to absorb all the ‘friendly’ elements of small, local races where everyone knows each other and scale it up to ultra distance. I recall arriving into the Amersham Ultra and everything being in the right place, it was in a great location and everyone knew what they needed to do and outwardly they showed no stress. Anecedotal evidence from others who have run with them confirm that is pretty much the case all over an XNRG event.
Best things: no fuss, well drilled, experienced team, great attitude Website: www.xnrg.co.uk
Organisers of: Monarchs Way, St Peters Way, Stort 30
I ran the St. Peter’s Way in 2014 and it has long left a lasting impression on me – this is partly because Lindley Chambers is a rather unforgettable chap but there were other reasons. I recall rocking up to the SPW and bumping into Ian Braizer for the first time since we’d both crashed out of the Thames Gateway 100, lining up for an actual kit check and a race briefing that felt more like being told off. However, the pre race organisation was on point and the marshalling crews across the course were absolutely outstanding and often old hands at the ultra game. The aid stations were spot on and it all ran with a kind of military precision. There is much to admire about the way Challenge Running do races and if you’re looking for tough, well thought out, well executed but ultimately achievable adventures then they are well worth a look.
Organisers of: Ranscombe Challenge, Viking Way Challenge, Cakeathon
There are people who might (justifiably) suggest that organising looped events is relatively straight forward. 1 aid station, a few direction signs and off you go. I tend to believe that the reason this opinion exists is because race organisers like Phoenix and Saxons, Vikings & Norman’s make a difficult task look easy. When you roll up to a SVN event you’re treated like an adult, Traviss and Rachel are both hugely experienced runners who offer sage words of advice and an understanding of what motivates runners (distance, routes, cake and medals). The SVN events are always a joyful experience and the organisation is the right balance of knowing you’ve got a reasonably experienced group of attendees and the need to ensure nobody gets lost.
The looped nature of the events means aid stations are never far away and the you’re never more than a few hundred metres from another runner who will offer moral support if you’re in need. SVN has community spirit written all over it and this combined with good routes, excellent aid stations and wonderful race directors make this an easy choice to run.
Best things: Community spirit of the events, the medals and the ridiculously overfilled goody bags. Website: www.saxon-shore.com
Ultra Trail Scotland/Find Your Adrenaline
Organisers of: Isle of Arran Ultra, Arran 25km
If you’re running in autumn or winter, if you’re running up Scottish mountains and if you’re unsure what you’ve let yourself in for then you really want to ensure that the organisers of a race have got your back. Find Your Adrenaline who organised the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran race proved to be the best race organisers I’ve ever come across. I attended the inaugural event and saw a small team of race organisers bringing together two very different sets of runners (many who had come from Spain and the local runners). I witnessed the organisers going through the route in a variety of languages, the pre race meal was amazing, the support we were shown in putting an easy roof over heads was brilliant and then getting everyone to the start line was a very simple no fuss affair. There were no bells, no whistles, no silly gimmicks – this would be a hardcore race and it demanded the best of its organisers.
We’d been given GPX files well in advance, we’d been talked through the trouble spots on the route and as we all made the climb to Goatfell and light was coming up I think we all felt well supported and like this was going to be a great day out. When race director Casey Morgan though started sending runners back because conditions were so bad this was proof positive that safety was foremost on the minds of the organisers. Nobody could blame him or the rest of the team – nature can be tough. The brilliant thing though was that the support didn’t end here, once we had descended the mountain the team kicked into action and provided food, drink and anything else we could want. I have nothing but the highest of praise for the team under extremely difficult and disappointing (for them as much as the runner) conditions. I’m glad to see they didn’t see this as the end and if you fancy a real challenge then you should consider a crack at Arran this June.
Run Walk Crawl
Organisers of: SW100, SW50, Gower 50
Organised, friendly and well thought out are how I’d describe the Run, Walk, Crawl experience. Because of dropping down to the SW50 from the 100 I had a bit of time to kill and so joined the support team handing out numbers and registering runners. This was an awesome experience and sitting behind the table was almost as much fun as the running. The rugby club that the organisers had hired out was a brilliant location as it meant we had hot showers (pre and post race), somewhere to change and a decent place to camp too. There was a town and a train station a short hop away and it meant that the runners had access to everything they might need. Race morning saw coaches laid on to the start and it all felt easy (which as the runner is something you only appreciate if something goes wrong). On the course there was great support from the crews, food and drink options were plentiful and the route even passed a Co-op for an ice-cream stop (truly something for everyone).
Best things: understanding of runners needs, well organised staff, excellent setup. Website: www.runwalkcrawl.co.uk
Organisers of: SainteLyon
I don’t do many mass participation events because I simply don’t enjoy them and feel that they get far too much coverage (looking at you London Marathon). However, the SainteLyon with a total of 14,000 runners over 4 different distances is an exception I make.
The race is a bit of French classic that has been running for over 60 years but despite this the race remains reasonably anonymous in the UK and English speaking countries. And so to why I would consider Extra Sports do brilliant at race organisation, the first is the language barrier – many of the volunteers and staff are well versed in English and other languages, but that isn’t the pleasant surprise – the surprise is the fact that many can spot you as a foreigner before you’ve even spoken and are incredibly helpful. The rest of my experience with Extra Sports and the SainteLyon was equally well organised – the main hall were registrations take place is split between the race village and the number hand out. Identity checks are swift and number allocations equally so but it’s a very human process despite the number of people involved. Then there are the logistics are transporting thousands of runners to the start line, returning bags to the finish line and ensuring that everyone is suitably comfortable, fed and watered in the run up to a race start at midnight in the middle of December. Extra Sports go the extra kilometre.
On course it’s the same brilliant event management – in the icy unmanned sections there are quad bikers going back and forth to help runners who might be injured. Last time I saw a runner being airlifted out (I assume due to injury) and every care was shown here. Aid stations despite being incredibly busy were never once short of food or drink and the people manning these incredibly busy aid stations looked like they were working harder than the runners. Truly epic efforts, truly brilliant.
Best things: Organisation of transport for a shedload of runners, really well considered logistics at start and finish. Website: www.saintelyon.com
Ultra Running Ltd
Organisers of: The Green Man Ultra
Ultrarunning Ltd, organisers of the Green Man, Malvern Hills and the Midnight Express to name but a few boast a fine reputation for fun, inventive and inspiring ultra marathons that you always fancy a second (or more) crack at. My first experience was a mud soaked bumble around Bristol known as the Green Man Ultra. We were lucky I think that we had a fine day for it which allowed runners to congregate outside the main registration hall. Numbers/colours were allocated according to your distance (30 or 45 miles and whether you were being fed on route or not) a theme that continued into the medals as well.
Once off I found that the course was easy enough to follow and you were never very far from another runner despite the relatively small field. What was a surprise was just how delicious the aid station food was – including the delightful jam butties! The crews were plentiful for this one, this meant that no runner was waiting around for very long for a cup of tea!
I rolled in reasonably late from this one but that didn’t stop there being a tremendous reception and more importantly there was still some of the truly delicious chilli remaining! (a common occurrence when you’re not at the front of the race is that post race food has often disappeared – but not here). Facilities at the end were ace and the lovely certificate I was presented with (with my name written and spelt correctly) was a genuinely lovely finishing touch. This race, the experience, the organisation and the medal will long be remembered
Obviously there are lots of other incredible organisers of races, Vigo Running Club and Harvel Hash Harriers who put together the Tough Love 10 are outstanding, the chaps behind the Marlborough Downs Challenge are incredibly well organised and I’ve rarely met any organisers that have done a bad job. You’d certainly be assured that all race directors go into these things to provide great race experiences because making money isn’t the reason you do it and they want to most of all make sure that you all get round safely having had a load of fun.
You’ll all have your favourite races, you’ll all have your favourite race organisers and my list is just an opportunity to look into something new, in the knowledge that the organisers involved with these companies offer the best race organisation and experiences I’ve had.
‘I’m not a people person, it’s fair to say I mostly don’t like people – which I guess is why I’m here and not on the South Downs Way 50 today – I wanted a race where I can be mainly unknown and anonymous’. A comment I made to one of the runners at the wonderfully fun Testway Ultra this weekend – a race I’m very glad I attended, despite the state I find myself in now.
Let’s roll back to about 5.57am the morning of the race as I jumped behind the wheel of ‘Spusum’ my little Aygo with ASKruns and the GingaNinja in tow. As we thundered out of Kent I remember saying to myself that ‘I mustn’t let the trauma of driving force my shoulders up around my ears’ but that didn’t happen, I recall saying to myself ‘lucky that my cold had cleared up for the race today’ it hadn’t and at the first gear change as I felt my hamstring a bit I remembered how destroyed the Silkin Way has left me. Let’s say that I had a few concerns about my appearance at the Testway Ultra.
However, with the Fellsman a mere three weeks away, the West Highland Way Challenge only seven weeks away and the Arran ultra only ten weeks away I felt I needed to take the risk of running a reasonable distance event that had a decent element of toughness.
Welcome to the Testway Ultra.
On paper (or rather GPX) this doesn’t look tough at all, there’s more than enough trail (although a couple of significant tarmac sections), the elevation profile suggested that although not flat there were no hideous climbs, conditions were a bit muddy but nothing that any trail marathon or ultra runner wouldn’t have seen before and so you’d go into this thinking that it was a pleasant 44 mile trot.
Ha! The Testway Ultra has a few surprises up its sleeves though to ensure that you were getting good value for money and in short, I can happily report that this was awesomely good fun.
When I arrived at the start I grabbed my number and then went and hid on the back seat of the car away from the rain, dipping out only when the toilet queue had subsided enough to squeeze out a pre race number one, but sadly not a number two (a problem that would come back to bite about 15 miles later in the race). The start was well organised, very efficient and all the runners were slowly marshalled to the start line at the top of the hill on time and in good order. Here I met the amazing runner @TonySharkey who I’ve known a bit through Twitter and I find it’s always lovely to meet the people who you look at with great admiration. He was clearly going to hammer out a time that would make me look like I wasn’t moving but we chatted for a few minutes and when the start came we wished each other well.
For the record he did hammer out a fantastic a time!
As for me I set off at an unusually swift pace and given that my training has taken something of a nosedive of late this seemed an odd choice. However, the beautiful setting and the rolling vistas ahead of me ensured I was in good spirits as I bimbled my way through the miles. The weather was being cool but dry or as I would like to say, the weather was being kind and the route was very runnable. This was a far cry from the tarmac trails of two weeks ago, my hamstring and groin were in seventh heaven…
Well for the first miles…
I’ve come to the conclusion that I must have a self destruct button somewhere as about five miles in I felt all the angst of pain running through my back simply explode. There wasn’t an ‘ache, ache, ache, bang’ – no there was just ‘bang’. I looked around at my surroundings and pressed heavily into the area where there was pain – it was tender, it was sore and the resting on my back of my last comfortable race vest was causing shooting pains of agony. Bugger.
I looked down at my watch and saw that the number of kilometres run was a mere 8.56 – some way short of the required 70(ish)km. I slowed for a while to gather my thoughts… injury, Fellsman, West Highland Way, another DNF, pain, early into the race…
I decided that I had to at least checkpoint 1, if nothing else rescue would require longer than it would take to hobble to a limp CP1 finish. I did however promise myself that if I arrived into the checkpoint in good time then I would push on through to CP2.
Of course, I ended up arriving into the first stop in good time and after two cups of cola I headed out quickly (basically before I convinced myself to DNF) and issuing a million thanks to the volunteers and supporters. The issue here was that the first checkpoint wasn’t 10 miles away from the start, it was about 9 miles and second checkpoint wasn’t 10 miles either this was at least a couple extra and this resulted in a problem.
Checkpoint 1 to checkpoint 2 was where it started to heat up, temperature wise and trouble wise. The cold I’d been recovering from added fuel to my already injury laden self. I was taking on lots of fluid but I soon realised that my 600ml wasn’t going to be sufficient and began rationing myself. Thankfully I had the lovely course to encourage myself with and a lovely runner called Dave, who would be my sometime companion over the next few miles but with my back in pieces, water running low I did wonder what the hell else could go wrong! It seems that in my head somebody was listening and decided that, about 15 miles in, that I needed a loo stop but with no really discreet place to go I decided to amble ever forwards – a decision I would regret long into the night as my efforts in the Vaseline department had been left rather wanting and lets put it like this the rusty bullet hole seemed more like a fresh shooting had happened in the chaffing department.
However, all this said my spirits were surprisingly good and this was mainly because I knew that I would reach checkpoint 2 long after it was sensible to continue – sadly I didn’t. I was well within the time I had allocated to myself and as I arrived at checkpoint 2 I felt a pang of, ‘oh god I’ve still got another marathon to go’. The great thing was that the company I’d been keeping to this point had been lovely and the ace guys and gals at the checkpoint were amazing – listening to my endless list of aches of pains as I munched my way through their jelly beans and cola.
Still the weather was fine, I had survived my water shortage and it seemed rather silly to drop out now. For a little while I picked up the pace again to see if a different stride pattern might help alleviate the stress on my back (it didn’t) and I bimbled my way past another lovely volunteer (all of whom I tried to have a little joke or three with as they clapped and cheered me on). I strode purposefully up the hill where I found another lovely volunteer giving me directions down towards a river section, ‘6 miles of flat canal like running’ he promised. I’m sure he meant this as a kindness but to me the flat would be a killer and as I stomped off down the hill I began a slow and steady trudge towards the third checkpoint.
I decided that as time was on my side and I wasn’t going to be winning any prizes for my pace I’d slow down for this section and save my legs for what I suspected would be a more difficult back end.
This turned out to be the first really good decision I had made and I strode purposefully through the route with bits of running thrown in for good measure and though there had been a few miles of running by a river and busy roads the route remained mostly reasonably interesting and there were enough passers-by offering thumbs up to feel like a nice atmosphere on what was fast becoming my sweaty evening stroll.
Soon though I drifted into the third checkpoint, the bad news was that cola was in short supply and but I had thankfully arrived before the glut of runners behind me (sorry guys it was me who finished the cola off). It was here that I met the runner who defined the remainder of my race and helped ensure that I finished my latest foray into the ultra marathon world. However, first let me mention the lovely Louise (a lady I had met at the start of the event) and we crossed paths again when she caught me up at around mile 30, we found ourselves running together for a little while and chewing the fat over the ridiculousness of our race schedules and the silly things we often find ourselves doing. However, somewhere along the line I lost Louise as I had also been chatting with Kain and Francesca (I did check the spelling of the names of both of my fellow runners!) the other two runners who I’d fallen in with.
As I said earlier at the third checkpoint I’d met the runner who would pretty much define my race and this was the very wonderful Francesca. A lady with a quick wit, a cheery and chatty personality and a desire to finish. It seemed we were both travelling at roughly the same speed and so found ourselves developing a groove through the tough final stages. Our chatter and laughter pushed us through the worst of the mud and the water and whenever things would get a bit tough we’d throw out a bit of a funny line or words of encouragement. I’ve been Francesca – new to the ultra world but keen and determined to finish, she reminded me a little bit of Elaine, that I ran the latter stages of the Green Man Ultra (read about that here) with and that race and that partnership had been a real favourite of mine. This experience wold turn out to be just as rewarding, hopefully for both of us, I can certainly say that having the support of a fellow runner and somebody to take my mind off the hideous pain my back was in gave me all the drive I needed to push on. It’s fair to say that my running improved alongside Francesca and I found myself willing to push on that little bit faster whenever we were able. It is also true that the latter stages of the race though were my favourite as I love nothing more than sloshing about in the mud and the crap, picking my way through the route and bouncing through the worst of the mud, sending it cascading up and down my legs!
As the miles came crashing down we once again felt that the accuracy of the checkpoint locations wasn’t quite as up to scratch as the rest of the race! We rolled into the final checkpoint with Suunto reading as less than 3km to the finish but with the volunteers reporting that there were 3 miles remaining – the truth is that it was somewhere in between, but when you’re tired and sore all you want is some assurance that you need to go no further than is absolutely necessary. Once more at the checkpoint I played the roll of flirty jester, offering a nod and wink to the lovely volunteer with the wonderful beard and twinkled my smile at the lady I’d joked earlier could have taken my place in the race – there should always be time for a bit of fun with the volunteers.
Anyway, we set off for home, the knowledge that we would make it before dark was also handy as one of us was short of a headtorch and I was concerned how we might fare if we lost the light before the end of the race. Thankfully we ran across the wooden path over the marshland in excellent time and took a few seconds as we re-entered civilisation to ensure we were going the right way. A gentleman began walking towards us, very nicely dressed I noted and gave s a hearty thumbs up and welcome, ‘300m and you’re there’ – I could have kissed him, instead I simply hugged him.
As we headed off I recounted the tale of Jimmy McKenna, the only person that ever served as running coach to me (I was a mere 7 years old) and one lesson has always stuck with me, ‘it doesn’t matter how you’ve run, always finish strong’ and so with uncharacteristic ease I slipped into full throttle mode with Francesca and we hurtled towards the finish and ensured that we crossed the line together.
What a day.
Distance: 44 miles
Profile: Deceptively challenging
Date: April 2018
Location: Coombe Gibbet
Terrain: Trail (and a some tarmac)
Tough Rating: 2/5
Route: The route was really lovely in places with nothing unpleasant (well except for a flat six miles in the middle but I think most people would enjoy this as a respite for the undulation). The views in parts were beautiful and the trail was mixed up enough that it never felt like it was going to get dull. The excellent thing about the route was that the good parts were spread throughout the route and the less interesting parts were equally spread. Sometimes a race can have all of its excitement in a very confined space but the route of the Testway is fun and varied. It is also much tougher than the GPX file suggests and I saw many a tough race shirt on the start line (Dragons Back, Centurion and MdS finishers) so go into this expecting a fun and rewarding day at the office.
Organisation: Organisation can be a tough one to get right, especially on a point to point when you have to ferry runners to the start early in the morning but Andover Trail Runners showed real skill in handling the event and the runners. Number collection was easy and the on the course volunteers who manned all the major road crossings were awesome. The provided GPX file was a welcome addition to the race pack and the on course markings were pretty good mostly (although it was noted that towards the end there were significantly less of them to aid direction – though signs do get removed by scallywags periodically).
Support: The team at the start, the finish and on the course was excellent, thank you to all of you. The volunteers were amazing and the support crews were in fine cheer for all the runners not just their own. The checkpoints were pretty good with a decent selection of savoury and sweet items, the only minor downside was the running our of cola, but I’m sure this will be rectified for the next running. The only other comment I would add is that it might be worthwhile considering adding water stop(s) to some of the road crossings – on a hotter day 10+ miles between checkpoints can be a long distance to go if you’ve run low on water and the road crossing guys were perfectly positioned as a spare water stop – just a thought.
Awards: Lovely medal, some awesome photographs and a great day. What more do you need?
Value for money: £50? Bargain.
Mentions: I’m not normally one for special mentions however thanks to Tony, Dave, Louise, Rachael, Louise and especially Francesca who made the Testway Ultra a really fun event for me. Oh and thanks to Sam Arnold (and the other wonderful photographer whose name eludes me) who was taking photographs of the runners and captured me doing my, ‘staring into the middle distance’, ‘moulding of a fool’, ‘Hamlet cigars advert’ and ‘Heavy Landing’.
Conclusion: I’d run this again, I’d want to train a bit better for it but the whole experience left me with a generally positive feeling, the distance wasn’t so far for it be a main spring ultra marathon but it would serve as a truly great warm up for a 75 or a 100. It wold also be a great step up for trail marathon runners who fancy a nice big meaty step up. The guys at Andover Trail Runners deserve a lot of credit for putting on an event that gave so much joy and I hope it runs for many years to come. Check out Andover Trail Runners at their website
Now the big question is will my back and other issues recover enough in time for The Fellsman and the West Highland Way Challenge? Well that remains to be seen – until next time, adios and have fun running!
This is a story two years in the making as the moment I finished the SainteLyon in 2015 I knew I had found ‘my’ race. My experience was so incredibly positive that I knew I would return and when entries opened in April I was waiting with my debit card to hand ready to sign up. Experience had taught me that this was unnecessary but I wanted my place confirmed as quickly as possible and within a few hours I had also uploaded the medical certificate from the UTBCN, booked my flights and begun the search for accommodation.
The first half of my running year had gone quite well, finishing with a great finish at the South Wales 50 and despite failure at MIUT I was feeling tremendously positive overall going into the summer race break. However, the death of my partners mother, illness and injuries to my back meant that my return to training and racing was hampered quite badly. I didn’t show up for the return of the London to Brighton, although I rocked up to the start of the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran this was cancelled mid race due to terrible weather conditions and I deferred my place at The Rebellion because of a hideous chest infection and a lack of preparation. This all meant that my return to the SainteLyon was incredibly undertrained in fact only just returned to training and in no way ready to face this wonderful course.
Regardless I wasn’t going to miss out and on Friday, 1st December I ambled along to the hideous Luton Airport and took the short flight to the delightful Lyon St Exupery Airport a short hop on the Rhône Express took me into the centre of the city (30mins), I bought a 72hour combined Metro, Tram and bus ticket (€15) and took the 3 minute metro ride to Saxe Gambetta where I would find my small but perfect AirBnB accommodation just two minutes from the station.
I dropped my bags down to be greeted by the sight of a Nespresso machine and some Belgian waffles and chocolate crepes! Merci Diep (the host). I grabbed a few bits like my passport and registration confirmation before heading straight out to the hall to collect my number. Another short hop on the metro and I was a five minute walk from where I needed to be – awesome.
Security was still quite tight in France and there were bag and body searches before entry to the hall – which in light of recent history both in France and across Europe -makes sense. But once in the hall it was like a Mecca for all things trail running and I slowly wandered round deciding what I would spend some pennies on. It was lovely to see Oxsitis with a big stand and lots of products on show and while I may not wear them any longer Hoka also rolled into town with a decent showing.
Collection of my number was easy this year and I used my incredibly handy French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas francais. parlez vous anglais?’ and I found that my French hosts once they knew I was English simply switched languages (something I am in awe of) though I did use my French language skills wherever possible. With my number collected I headed over to get some SainteLyon socks and my new much loved Buff!
And from this point I actually had some free time. I headed over to the huge shopping centre and picked up some provisions, did some late night sightseeing and then continued in this vein the following morning – touristing before settling down to an afternoon nap before the race. I then engaged in my now infamous pre race coffee ritual for a full bowel clearance and eventually I’d get round to loading up my kit up! It all seemed to be going far to smoothly.
At about 6pm I headed down to the bus pick up point and joined the queue for one of the many buses to St Etienne. I remember in 2015 the bus was warm but the window had a drip running down it and I’d worked hard to ensure I didn’t get wet! This year the bus was a little chillier but the window didn’t leak and we arrived in good time and without incident. Security was speedy but thorough and as I had time to kill I grabbed some of the pre race snack goodies and went into the smaller of the two halls to see if I could catch a bit more sleep or at least rest. The hall was warm and filled with people but I had little trouble finding space and I folded a buff up and lay my head upon it – but I couldn’t sleep. The SainteLyon was effectively my Christmas present to myself and like a young boy I was desperate to open my present and get to running! Much like a Christmas Eve the following three hours dragged like the Hundred Years’ War! Still the hours did give me a vantage point for kit and people watching – the most interesting outfit I saw was a teenage mutant ninja turtle with full shell and this chap (as far as I know) ran the whole thing dressed like this. The STL though doesn’t attract a great deal of runners like this, they’re quite rare I would say. Most runners rock up in their favourite or best kit and I was pleased to note that many of the runners were wearing Oxsitis, Raidlight or Kalenji bags, undoubtedly the French appreciate these brands being reasonably readily available on the high street and support local brands. Shoe choices were equally local with most seeming to opt for Salomon or Kalenji – the good thing for me was I saw no Karrimor!
I’d chosen Altra for footwear and my beloved Oxsitis Hydragon for my back with a variety of OMM and Ronhill kit making up the rest, perhaps it was the kit that made me stand out as English as anyone that approached me spoke to me (generally) in my native tongue – clearly to the other runners I was not French!
Anyway to the race! The SainteLyon in its current form is a 72km race from St Etienne to Lyon, taking place the first weekend in December and setting off around midnight, you can read more about it here at Wikipedia. At around 11.30pm I drifted slowly to the start knowing that I would be starting near the back of the field but this would allow me to pick off runners later on (if I had any capacity to do so).
The organisers though were releasing the runners in waves which meant that as I was at the back I would be one of the final runners to depart St Etienne. I could feel the cold setting in and I was geared for minimal warmth as I knew that during the race I would overheat with too many layers. I rubbed my arms periodically to retain warmth and hugged myself, while gently jigging on the spot – stopping sporadically to take photographs and make social media checks.
40 minutes later and, as promised, bang on time the music played, the horn blew and thousands of runners were released into the night. It was as magical as I remembered it, only this time there was no @kemptomslim to share the moment with and so I turned to look at the arch I had just run under and said ‘au revoir’ before turning on my heel and running into the Rhône Valley night.
The first few kilometres are along the roads and lack any really interesting things to note other than the opportunity to catch some ground in the runners ahead of you or perhaps make some alliances to allow the hours to pass more pleasantly. I decided on the former rather than the latter and pressed firmly ahead knowing that conditions underfoot later in the race might slow me down. Perhaps the big clue as to the conditions was the fact that many runners had loaded up crampons to their race vests in preparation for cruddy conditions but at this early stage even those in their Kalenji Road shoes were running fine.
While my French is limited I could feel the ambience of the race and the runners and there was a generally positive, goodwill feeling that swelled up around the runners in these early stages and you couldn’t help but be carried by this. For my part I darted between runners and ambled towards the trail which kicked in at around the 6km mark.
From here the light snowfall that we had seen on the sides of the road was replaced by much thicker, more dangerous, not so grippy snow and I recall as I headed down the trail that ‘bugger, this isn’t going to be as easy as last time’.
However, I am confident in my footwork and I was able to press on a little faster than those in front of me and as the kilometres marched downward toward the first checkpoint I started to feel very confident about running a good time. Despite a lack of training in the lead up to the race I was feeling surprisingly spritely too and as I hurled myself up and down the trails I was enjoying myself.
I felt like I was in a good place and set myself up for cruise control to allow me some breathing room and to take photographs and simply to take joy from the experience. About 13km in, not long before the first checkpoint I looked behind me to see the procession of runners all twinkling behind me and then I really remembered why I love this race so much.
However, with underfoot conditions worsening I was glad to drop upon the first checkpoint and it was here that I stayed the longest of all the checkpoints – maybe 5 minutes, this was mainly due to the amount of people and partly because I actually wanted food. But it was still a short stop and thankfully they had full fat Coca Cola on offer and I enjoyed a cup full before heading out – no Rolo Cola this time @kemptonslim
I remembered that post checkpoints I was freezing cold for the first few minutes and so covered my fingers with the mitten part of my gloves and pulled my neck buff up and my head buff down and headed out. Weirdly though my nose was freezing and when I felt the front of my buff the snot and hot breath had frozen into a cold and icy mess. I folded it down a little and it was better but this would be the first buff to be replaced a few more kilometres down the trail.
It was from here that you started noticing people putting crampons on as conditions underfoot deteriorated further and there was a visible increase in the amount of runners who were losing their legs beneath them, I was keen to go as fast as I could but knew two things;
Falling would hurt
I’d forgotten to buy ultra marathon sports insurance
and so I ran were it was appropriate and walked as quickly as possible everywhere else. It was about the 20km mark that I heard the sounds of an Australian accent behind me and for a short while I’d met someone who spoke English natively and we had a lovely brief chat before we went our sort of separate ways. This was her first ultra marathon and her French friend felt this would be a great introduction to ultras and when I saw her she looked the business taking her fast marathon form into the STL. I would see a little more of her later.
The second section unlike the first had a greater degree of pure Trail and both my knees and back appreciated this. The trail was incredibly variable with some being good clear trail, other parts moist but most were snow and ice covered and progress remained slower than I would have liked but still not bad. The STL though has a very interesting aspect to it that say something like the CCC does not – overtaking. Although the route is busy with runners the potential for overtaking is enormous and you find yourself gearing up past runners all the time and then being overtaken by them! This has benefits for the relay runners who are undoubtedly fresher than the full distance runners and even for the Express (44km) runners that you might meet.
I found myself hitting some decent running in this section and engaging in lots of overtaking and being overtaken and it was fabulous hearing the phrase ‘a gauche’ or ‘a droit’ – I can’t tell my left from my right in English so I had to concentrate hard to get it right in French!
Although not clock watching I was very aware that my time was better than it had been in 2015 and some basic mental calculations suggested I could shave off around two or three hours from my previous outing and despite an injury and illness hit few months I was giving it as much welly as the ground would allow. However, all of this was to grind to a halt and all the good work undone. At about 23km in the ground became so icy that runners couldn’t even walk on it and in front of you a plethora of bodies were strewn across the trail.
A runner would fall and the phrase ‘ca va?’ would be called the two or three runners that would stop to pick up their fallen comrade. I brought my own race to a stop to assess the conditions and decided that I would use what visual clues I had before me, track the steps of the runners ahead of me and go as carefully as possible. Sections were becoming so severe that runners were sitting on their arses and pushing themselves down the trail on their hands.
I witnessed bloodied and bruised runners ahead of me but their tenacity meant that most would get up. My problems intensified though when at 26km my trusty Altra gave into the ice and I was thrust skyward and came down with a thud. I’d broken the fall with my back and smashed my headand although I got up straight away I was in pain – my recent back troubles suddenly came rushing back and my head felt woozy. I knew that Sainte-Catherine was only a couple of kilometres further on and so I followed the crowd, walking now and not in a good place. I slipped and slid more, desperate to keep my feet but I fell a further three times before the second checkpoint and when I crashed in I felt like death.
I took a few minutes and ate emmental and salami to help get something in me and for both the first and last time I wondered if I should stop and seek medical attention. The answer was ‘no’ and with that I set off again. I tried to focus on the trail and ran reciting song lyrics and poetry to myself as I’ve often found this works to stop me thinking about more painful distractions. The various falls though and those to come had given me s kicking and perhaps had my head taken a worse knock than it did I would have had the common sense to stop – but I didn’t. The trail continued to worsen and we were now into the coldest part of the night and at the highest, often most exposed points, when the wind whipped through it passed straight through me but I refused to put additional layers on knowing that this would simply infuriate me.
Upon reach Inge the highest point of the race I felt something of an achievement, despite having run it before I convinced myself that the rest of the course was downhill but this was ridiculous and actually the most dangerous Running was just around the corner.
I could see the pack starting to gather ahead of me, the ice, once again so bad that runners were sat on the floor dragging themselves down and the mountain rescue, aided by quad bikes were going back and forth collecting runners from the trail. In my head I refused to sit down and drag myself along, I refused to bow, in my head I could here Terence Stamps, Zod calling out, ‘kneel before Zod son of Jor-el’ and although I’m no Superman i knew that the moment I gave in I would death march this home.
My decision to stay stood cost me a couple of falls and a fellow runner came sliding into the back of me taking me out at one point. My already broken body didn’t have the required agility to jump straight back up this time but my fellow runners pulled me to my feet quickly and set me on my way. I was hurting now in lots of ways but the mild delirium kept me on the straight and narrow!
I dragged my sorry arse into the checkpoint and found a quiet spot to change head torches and power my phone up after the cold had simply switched it off. I didn’t bother with food or drink here – I was feeling sickly but I hoped this would pass if I quickly got out of the checkpoint and avoided the dreaded DNF.
I was a marathon or so in and light would soon be upon these beautiful French lands and with it I felt conditions would improve if only because I’d be able to see but the news was a bit better than that – the closer to Lyon we got the better the trail conditions got and icy conditions became more sporadic. My head was also starting to clear a little bit and despite the physical pain I could feel myself running more and more with confidence returning that I could control both my ascents and more importantly the descents.
Finally after the drama and trauma of the night I was back in the race – although the slow progress through the ice had ensured that there was no way I was going to run faster than the previous attempt.
We were also on the countdown to the finish ‘SainteLyon 25km arrivee’ I pushed on as fast as I could, walking the hills as quickly as possible and staying steady across the flat and downhills. I stopped briefly to top up my calories with a couple of caramel Freddo and some icy water and took a look back to realise that there still many, many runners behind me – this was clearly proving a hard slog for everyone.
With 20km to go I pulled into the next checkpoint and pulled out again quickly – I’d been keeping tabs on the young Australian girl and her friend who I’d inadvertently been playing overtaking tennis with and decided that I could use her as my pacer – the aim? To beat her to the finish. The final 20km are much more road based which doesn’t really suit my running style nor my injury record, however, it did allow me to push on without too much concern for what was happening at foot level.
about 5km in to the final 20km I saw my new target drift ahead of me – still looking strong and here I thought it was all over, I didn’t have a race in me – or so I thought. With just over 10km left I entered the final checkpoint had arrived at the outskirts of Lyon. I saw the two runners I was trailing and asked how they were getting on, they described a tale of woe in the icy conditions and my internal Schadenfreude said, ‘hehe’ but instant karma paid me back by making me bite down hard on my own finger instead of the cheese and salami I was holding. I base them farewell and wished them a good final push but I knew I could get there before them.
Finally the sun was warming, I removed my buffs, my gloves and rolled my sleeves up. I knew the route from here, I could smell the finish line in the distance and even the good awful climb into the city I flew up much to the amusement of runners behind me. There are steps on the descent into Lyon and the finish – lots of them and ahead of me I could see runners gingerly hobbling down them but I pushed hard knowing that I could continue to climb the rankings.
Off the steps, down to the river, up the winding steps, over one bridge, fly past the musee de confluences and over the final bridge, cheering supporters shouting, ‘Allez!’ And clapping calling out, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’
I had decided on my finish routine long ago for this race and I ambled along to the final 200metres, I could see runners ahead of me and at the right moment I pressed my feet into the floor and like a rocket I blasted off much to the surprise of the crowd who whooped and hollered as I hit full pace. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 runners down, runner number 6 with his hands in the air smacked me in the head but I was in full glorious flow and I hurtled towards the final turn – taking it wide to ensure I could cross the line flat out! I passed a couple of final runners at the line and I was over.
It was over! I was over!
Ascent: +2000 metres
Runners: 7,000 (15,000 over all distances)
Terrain: Mixed, icy, rocky, hilly, tough
Tough Rating: 3/5
Organisation The STL is possibly the best organised race I’ve ever run, but then after 64 editions perhaps that is to be expected. However, they clearly keep on making minor corrections to the system to ensure that runners know what’s going on and what they have to do. Things like transport to the start for thousands of runners is slick and well rehearsed and the checkpoints although busy are all easily accessible as a runner.
As a French classic there isn’t much information in English but Google translate is helpful and the volunteer army was amazing in helping me with questions I had.
There was also excellent social media connectivity and the tracking was quick, up to date and working unlike at so many events (yep I’m thinking of you UTMB). The STL scores incredibly highly for organisation.
Volunteers All volunteers are amazing but the SainteLyon volunteers are out in some freezing cold conditions for a very long period and they remain hugely upbeat – they are a credit to the race and to European Ultra Running. There should also be a special mention to the many people who came out on to the course to support, whether they had a runner or not, truly special.
Route The route had something for everyone whether you’re a trail lover, a road hog or somewhere in between. The ascents are sharp and the descents technical in places but it’s fun and the route is mostly wide enough for easy overtaking. The views for this route are strange in that you are in the middle of the night so it’s dark but the lights of the runners illuminate things around you and in the distance and that’s a beautiful sight. I feel very much the reason I love the STL so much is because the route is both challenging and fun, this time it really did show me it’s tough side but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is an everyman course and with a bit of tenacity you can do it.
Awards I would love, love, love a SainteLyon medal but solo finishers are presented with a T shirt instead – a nice technical shirt but still not a medal. This year pre-race they also supplied a snood/buff and a pair of STL branded warm socks which are excellent. There were all sorts of other goodness such as the post race and pre race food (I didn’t bother with either but I heard good things about it). All in all the awards are great but I’d love a medal (take the hint organisers).
To give an indication of cost I paid around £85 return flights (London Luton – Lyon). £22 for the return express train to Lyon from the airport and about £85 for three nights Airbnb in the centre of Lyon as well as £60 for the race and transport. Other costs included a couple of technical SainteLyon t-shirts and a bobble hat (total cost £27). All in, transport, race, goodies, tourism and food £300.
Logistics I’ve written in my previous STL about logistics but Lyon is 1hr 25mons from London and Lyon Airport is 30 mins from the city centre. I used AirBnB for accommodation which was lovely and the race itself provides buses to the start for €13 and this is easily the best way of arriving fresh at the start. The organisers and Lyon/St Etienne are very well prepared for this event and as far as I could tell it runs smoothly and logistically brilliantly.
Value for money Value for money is a very subjective thing, for example some people even believe that OCR events are good value but this is a different kettle of fish. Entry is €63 – this includes the €3 service charge and what you get is not only a truly glorious event but also tremendous support (be that through volunteers, cheering supporters or food at checkpoints), most importantly though you receive a brilliantly organised event and having some events not this well set up I can tell you I appreciate the value of a good team delivering on their promises.
Favourite moments This year was a little different to 2015 but it had no fewer highlights, below are five moments that really made a difference to my race.
The start line, such an icon of the race and filled with all sorts of emotion. The moment the runners all started hugging and patting each other on their backs just made me feel connected to my fellow competitors
Standing at various high points of the route and looking back to see the procession of lights running to catch me and the people ahead of me.
The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
My sprint to the finish line
Conclusion Going back to the SainteLyon after 2015 was never in doubt. I had loved the idea of it and loved the execution of it. After being busy with Haria Extreme in 2016 I knew I would be returning to Lyon this year but what I hadn’t been prepared for was a hugely different experience.
In truth, as I look back on it, I enjoyed this year even more than my first time because of how close I came to failing and yet still clinging on. However, it wasn’t just that it was also the fact I got to enjoy the race, to watch the landscape move before my very eyes in a procession of light and because the SainteLyon continues to tease, ‘come back UltraBoy you can run me faster’.
Going back to the SainteLyon is a certainty because there is something special about it that no other race I’ve done has given me the feeling I get here. It might have left me broken into a thousand pieces but I would rather that it was body broken than my heart. SainteLyon 2017 – I loved you.
You can learn more about the race at www.saintelyon.com and below is a gallery of images taken during the 2017 event!
What do all these things have in common? These are all aids many of us use to help complete long distance endurance events.
I use running poles when allowed, I almost always use a GPS device even if a map isn’t loaded on to it and before I realised compression kit was causing all sorts of injury problems I would often be found in ridiculously tight fitting attire.
There are two aid types though that I wonder about, the first I don’t use, the second I do (when I can convince the GingaNinja to rock up to a race registration).
Pacers and Crews: The aid I don’t use that I’m referring to are pacers and it was after seeing some amazing finishes at hundred milers and the like that got me wondering if using a pacer increases the likelihood of a finish and whether by using them are runners on a level playing field?
The other aid are crews – which I do, on occasion, use and I believe that in the early days of my ultra marathoning I really wouldn’t have gotten very far without a crew and the support they offer. But do they give me and others who use them an edge on race day?
Reading lots of recent race reports and talking to runners it’s clear that there is an appetite for the use of both pacers and crews but does it take away something of the challenge? Increasingly my view is becoming that yes, these things are taking away from something that, at its best, in my opinion, is a solo sport.
Perhaps if they’re going to be in play there should be greater scrutiny about how a crew and pacers can be used as I’ve witnessed some things during recent races that has made me wonder if too much crew access and too much pacing is creating an unfortunate imbalance in ultra marathons.
I met a Spanish runner at about 30 miles into an unsupported race recently and we ran together for maybe 12 miles. I enjoyed his company very much but the curious thing was that his crew met him at five different points along the route during the time we were together. Each time he would stop, chat, change kit, have a nibble, check his route, have a sit in the warm vehicle etc. It felt like the spirit of the race was not being adhered to and there were others too during this particular event that had cars literally following them down the roads – with family members joining in for a few miles as pacers – picking up food at McDonalds, etc. I’ve met people who’ve run past their homes or near enough to detour and been witness to them going indoors, changing wet or filthy kit, filling up food and then simply popping back on the route – all I should point out, within the rules of the race. I don’t begrudge this level of support – hell, if I could get it my DNF percentage wouldn’t be so high! However, though I’m far from a purist in running terms I do feel this takes some of the shine off the effort required.
The pacer question is very much a personal choice and are often subject to specific race rules but for me these are an aid that detract from one of the most important aspects of a race – the mental challenge. I could pluck an arbitrary percentage out of the air but I’d suggest that most endurance races are won and lost in the mind and not in the body. The pacer therefore can have a real, tangible effect on a racers performance and we are back to the point about imbalance.
All this said though I’ve been known to buddy up with runners on a route in order to ensure a finish although always with the agreement that if the pacing didn’t match we’d say goodbye and good journey. That changed a little bit when on the South Wales 50 when myself and two other runners joined up on the course then formalised our pacing/team running strategy to ensure that we all finished. It was perhaps this more than anything that got me wondering about just how much of a difference a pacer can make. Now to be fair Ryan, Pete and myself were all pretty ruined by the time we’d hooked up and it was as much about surviving the night as it was pacing but it gave me an insight to what a fresh pair of legs or a fresh attitude can do for a very tired ultra runner.
These days I’m much more a social ultra runner rather than a competitive one and I tend not to think too much about my position in the field, preferring to concentrate on taking in my surroundings and having a lovely time. However, this has got me wondering just how much better I might be if I had a team right next to me pushing me forward?
The purity argument: The reason I suppose I don’t do that and put together a team to get me through these things is simply because of my belief in the solo element. I probably would be a better runner if there was someone in my ear for the final 50 miles pushing me that little bit harder or if I had a crew with lots of kit ready and waiting. However, for me ultra running is being out there, facing myself and a trail and although I can very much respect other people’s decisions for using pacers and crews it’s less and less suited to me. Perhaps evidence of this was that the last time the GingaNinja crewed for me was the Thames Path 100 in 2015 – here she met me several times armed with chocolate milk, kit options and a regular stern talking to but since then she’s mainly been at starts and finishes if there at all and in truth I prefer this. Although it’s scary to think you’re on your own it really does heighten the elation (for me) upon completion.
All this said I’ll still be using poles (periodically) and GPS – I’m not giving those up anytime soon, I mean I’m not completely stupid! Therefore am I a hypocrite for suggesting pacers and crews detract from a level race but I’m perfectly content to gain an edge by using kit that some call ‘cheat sticks’ or by buddying up inside an event? I suppose it’s an individuals view and more importantly a race directors view and if you (or perhaps I) don’t like it well then I don’t have to sign up to that race.
And so… I’m curious about your views on pacers and crews, do you feel they offer you a better chance of finishing well? Do you think they give some runners an advantage that others don’t have? Would you consider them a hindrance? Or are they simply part of your ultra running armoury?
I have been struggling with the start of this blog post about the South Wales 50 for a couple of reasons, the first is that some of what happened shouldn’t ever be aired again and remain confined to the trails it happened on and the second is that the race was so amazingly awesome that it is actually rather challenging to put into words.
However, as a regular reviewer of races I want you all to consider this monster, step back, think carefully and then probably enter and here is why…
Several months ago I had decided that my hundred mile effort for the year was going to be the SW100, described as brutal with a mere 30% completion rate. In my effort to tackle more and more brutal races this had all the appeal I needed and with training going well in the first four months of the year I was feeling pretty good about going up against this beast. Sadly in the wake of MIUT, Marlborough and Meriden my body took a series of nasty blows – bad injuries to my groin, my heel and my back and none have truly settled, especially after the mauling I took at Meriden three weeks ago. I therefore decided to request to be dropped down from the hundred mile to the fifty, I explained that I felt as though I at least stood a chance of getting around the 50 whereas I felt the hundred would probably annihilate me.
Joe and Ben couldn’t have been nicer and moved me over to the fifty but with trains already booked I was going to be arriving for the hundred anyway and so offered my services for a few hours as a volunteer. So at 5am on the Friday with a rucksack that weighed the same as a tank I set off on my journey to Radyr. Thankfully the GingaNinja was visiting her parents and I was able to grab a lift as far as Swindon in the relatively luxurious new wheels we had picked up the day before and after a quick spot of lunch (KFC) I hurled my bag on my back and trundled to Swindon train station for an hour long journey to Cardiff followed by a short hop to Radyr – half a mile from the start.
So far , so simple
The problem was I was pretty exhausted – the stupidly hot week we had just experienced had meant I’d managed only a few hours sleep all week and I didn’t fancy my chances of a good night in a jam packed tent with no roll mat. Regardless of these concerns I unloaded, set up my camp and then went to offer my services as a volunteer.
A bit of volunteering never hurt anyone
Joe handed me over to Sian on race number duty and together we spent the next few hours handing out race numbers, maps and shirts to all that wanted to risk their lives against the Welsh valleys. It was an amazing insight and something of a spectacle and of course it is a favourite thing of mine to do – simply to admire the every type of person who believes they can do this distance. Every type of person was represented here from the silly to the serious, the young to the old, the seasoned to the newbie, it would be interesting to see who would finish and importantly why people might stop.
I really enjoyed registration and felt like I’d gotten into the swing of things after a while and genuinely enjoyed the company of the other volunteers, especially Sian. After the 100s had finished registering I called it a day, they had more than enough volunteers to cope it seemed and I needed food, sleep and prep.
It was closing on 8pm when I left Radyr in search of food and the drizzle had already begun, I’d managed to cook some dirty noodles on my stove but having forgotten a fork I had to wet wipe one of the metal tent pegs to eat it – my hunger was far from sated. The nearest reasonable town was only a mile or so away and so I threw caution to the wind and headed out. Whitchurch it turned out had a number of eateries but I didn’t fancy sitting alone so I found a truly delicious fish and chip shop grabbed the ‘homemade fish cake and chips’ for £3.20 and meandered back towards the Tesco Express, while chowing down on my hot delicious treat, to pick up some essentials such as chocolate milk, a Turkish Delight and two packs of pulled pork pastries.
By 9.30pm a little wetter but much happier I settled down in my tent knowing that in the morning I’d be taking on an uncompromising 50 mile route. Sleep though was far from easy to find and it was an uncomfortable night filled with a drizzle that normally would aid my rest, but this night simply heightened my anxiety. I got up at about 5 and fiddled with kit for a bit and decided the best course of action was shower and a chocolate milk breakfast.
It was big communal rugby showers which warmed wonderfully across my exhausted body and I felt fresh afterwards as I slapped on liberal amounts of Vaseline to my knackers. My only concern was that I spilt a whole cup of tea on my runderwear the night before and despite keeping them in my sleeping bag they hadn’t dried and so my troublesome balls were a little looser than I might have liked but there was nothing for it but to accept it. It was here that I would meet the first of two gentlemen that would define my race. I met Pete in the shower room and we chatted a little about races, children and the days event, we’d had a bit of a laugh and as I left the changing facilities we wished each other well. I thought little more of it.
I proceeded up the stairs and grabbed an empty table as I didn’t really want to intrude on the couple of small gatherings and cracked open the chocolate milk – tidied up my drop bag and watched as a succession of weary looking warriors trundled in. Pete joined me at my table and behind me sat another gentleman runner, Ryan – we were joined by Gari (who it would turn out I already knew via Twitter and was speedy as buggery round the course) and a couple of others that helped to create a warm and friendly bantering atmosphere. It was mainly old race and kit chatter interspersed with amusing anecdotes. The time waiting for the bus to take us to the start simply flew by; I hadn’t had a start to a race this good in years.
As I left to get on the bus I found myself behind Ryan and as we’d already become acquainted I asked if he minded a bit of company for the trip to the start line. I was very grateful to learn little tidbits about his life and happy to share bits of mine – little did I know that he would be the other person who really would define my race.
But upon arrival at the drop off point and near the start of the race at Pen Y Fan I knew it was likely we would say our goodbyes and so it was with mild surprise that we continued to hang out together, Pete too popped up and we joked with some of the others, perhaps it was the sense of impending doom but even with only 50 people starting it felt a tight knit race.
And they’re off…
The awesome Joe kicked proceedings off and with a light flurry we all hit the first climb and were on our way back to drizzly Cardiff via the Brecon Beacons.
I’d done as I often do in races and started with my waterproof jacket on. I’d brought my Montane jacket rather than the rather inadequate Ultimate Directions waterproof I also own but within a few hundred metres I was dispensing with the jacket and it wouldn’t come out again. The climb up to Pen Y Fan was no world beater, it was a rather busy trail and surrounded by mist with limited visibility but this being Wales it felt magical or perhaps like a scene from Monty Pythons Holy Grail. Ryan had caught me up while I was arranging my bag and we bimbled along for a while overtaking one another and chatting as we went.
The route up to the summit (and the Beacons) had been described to me as like a motorway and I could sort of see that but perhaps I’d have romanticised it a little more by suggesting it was like the yellow brick road and we were on our way to the Emerald City. Perhaps it was when the cloud and mist broke open and The Valleys appeared that I could get a sense of how truly magnificent South Wales is. I was very glad to be here and on the Brecon Beacons going up and down the trails I was having a lot of fun – this has been described as the harder sections of the route but actually I found these early stages much more to my tastes and would have been very happy stuck up here all day and night.
That said some runners looked like they found these first climbs hard work and I’d certainly say they shouldn’t be underestimated but they were much less severe than some of the later up and downs. Ryan and I passed by some of the hundred milers about three quarters the way up Pen Y Fan and congratulated them on their efforts so far – they all looked really strong and had hit the halfway point at around 15hrs – more than enough time to get to the finish.
The summit of Pen Y Fan was busy and both Ryan and I decided not to hang around for obligatory selfies but pushed on through Cribyn for the first of the compulsory clips and here I picked up my first injury. The clip was broken and so in the howling wind I found myself rather than stabbing the paper I stabbed straight into my thumb – the views from here were rather spectacular and I headed over to the cliff edge for a wee look before we pushed onwards to what I was reliably informed called ‘Big Fanny’. Now ‘Big Fanny’ (sniggers like a teenage boy) provided the second compulsory clip point and the route provided a non-stop succession of up and downs.
It had its wild moments too such as the descent from Fan Y Big – I decided I was going to let gravity do the work down a rather steep descent and within seconds realised that despite reasonable sure-footedness this was going to get my legs out from under me. I was pretty certain that above me, being slightly more sensible in their approach to the descent, that Ryan and Ann (a lady we had just met) were laughing themselves silly at my antics. Having stopped my body dead in its tracks I waited for them to catch me up and simply referred to myself as an ‘over-eager tit’. Ann ran with us for a little while as she explained she had been feeling a little nauseous but was still chatting and running, and we were happy to have another face on our ‘fun bus through Wales’. She explained she was due to hit the North Downs Way 100 later in the year with Centurion and for the while we ran with her she looked in good form. It was a kilometre or two later that I lost the pair of them – I saw a seriously fun looking descent down towards Talybont Reservoir and hit the afterburner. ‘Wee’ I heard myself cry as I pushed on knowing that the checkpoint was only a few hundred more metres away and with the reservoir to my right and the wind slapping me in the face I thundered down the beautifully flat tarmac and into the waiting arms of the checkpoint staff.
Now normally I’d say three minutes and then out but I was in no rush and so had a couple of glasses of cola and as many purple jelly babies as were available. In the distance I could see Ryan and Ann but decided that I was slow enough on the ascents that they were undoubtedly catch me. I thanked the checkpoint staff and cried ‘tally-ho’ as I ambled my way upwards.
Beyond the first checkpoint
Now if the first section had been fun the second section was a little chewier. I ambled up the steep track into a section of undergrowth and thought, ‘hmmm have I taken my first wrong turn?’ Running up the track I wondered if I could catch sight of some of the other runners, the GPS was still saying roughly and I was keen to go back down the hill as much like the Grand Old Duke of York I’d end up coming back up it! It was at this moment that I saw the incredibly friendly face of Ryan but sans Ann.
Sadly she had retired at the checkpoint, Ryan suggested that she had taken a downward turn after I’d left them briefly to hurtle the descent into CP1.
‘Thank fuck it’s you’ I called out, ‘I think it’s up here but I’m not sure’. Ryan assured me that crossing the style and heading across was the right thing to be doing – sadly he was only half right and we set off away from the next climb but quickly corrected ourselves when we spotted a couple of very weary looking runners about 500 metres (vertically) away from us.
‘Oh bollocks’ I thought as we stopped for a jimmy riddle behind some windswept trees. ‘I like to fire the stream into the wind and see how far it’ll be carried’ I advised Ryan, he was on the same page.
Noting that I’d had an epic pee I decided to crack open the tailwind bottle I’d prepared earlier and upon taking several large gulps felt almost immediately better – though this was short lived once I realised what we had to climb.
With the help of some other runners we realised we had ended up in the wrong field and as there was no gate we very carefully and safely supported one another across the barbed wire and into the road before heading up one of the steepest ascents on the course. We had regular stops, both I think pretending that we were admiring the view rather than gathering our breath and we ploughed on. I couldn’t tell you how long we ambled upwards here but it was long enough to feel like hard work and when we reached the summit and the clip point we decided that a windy sit down was in order.
Ryan unfurled a breakfast bar that had been attacked by both the shape of his body and the sweat of the day. I did much the same only for me it was the sweaty Haribo option.
The wind was harsh up on the summit and so we picked ourselves up and set off quickly downwards to find a little bit of respite and warmth. With the skies now completely clear too it was a lovely day and I should have thought to sun cream up like I was hiding from the sunlight but I didn’t and I would pay a high price for that later. This was pleasant running though and generally we were still running – our legs felt pretty good and both Ryan and I, although no speed goats, were making good enough time to finish somewhere between 17 and 19 hours. However, it was here that we lost our way a little as the course zig zagged around and the GPS file didn’t quite match the road book we needed to stop and take stock of our position.
We encountered a couple of other runners in a similar predicament and as we wound our way around and down we realised we might be a little off. In the distance above us I saw Pete (and his posse) and waved enthusiastically – probably a little over friendly if I’m honest and rolled my arm nonchalantly around my head attempting to disguise my greeting – phew got away with it.
These miles proved to be interesting as we ambled through – not taking anything too seriously and spending most of our time doing knob and fart gags. The posse spread out here and there with different people choosing slightly different directions but often doubling back, it was to the collective credit of the runners that they always attempted to aid one another to ensure the right route was being taken. Ryan and I between us were actually doing rather well in navigation terms and as we dipped down to Trefil Village we had much to be pleased about.
The hard rough road into the village felt like an excellent place to slow down and this gave Pete a chance to catch us up and turn a duo into a trio. It occurred to me that this looked like a scene from ‘The Three Amigos’ but the bad news was that I was clearly being cast as Martin Short to Ryan’s Chevy Chase and Pete completing the line-up as Steve Martin. However, this felt right and as we listened to Ryan tell us about his £450 Ford Granada Funeral Car ‘Party Bus’ we simply howled our way into the next checkpoint.
Checkpoint 2 and the start of the real race
‘Hotdog lads’ came a cheery voice, ‘tea, coffee, fill your bottles?’ Upon entering CP2 we found ourselves in the midst of the best reception we could have hoped for, our drop bags awaited us but also importantly there were hot dogs on the menu and we all greedily ate them and washed it down with a cup of sweet tea. I continued to stuff my face with food from my drop bag and drank the chocolate milk I had been dreaming of but mostly I left my kit in my bag – no spare shoes or socks were required.
I’m not sure how it came about but the checkpoint volunteers ended up describing us as the smiliest runners they’d seen all day and I can see that being true but as I said, ‘we pay to do this, might as well enjoy it!’. Much banter was passed around the checkpoint and I told the tale of how a female runner, in the middle of the night asked me if we could run together telling me, ‘you don’t look too rapey’. Quick as a flash from the crowd came the response (and I’ll paraphrase) ‘she was wrong wasn’t she?’ Genius!
The guys at checkpoint 2 were magnificent and they sent us on our way truly refreshed and rather cheery about the next section and with only 500 metres of ascent we thought this would be a nice easy section – how wrong we were proved.
We ran across the first field and saw a small stream to cross and by the Power of Greyskull we did it, but this led us into boggy fields and we found that the tall grass made progress slow. Each of us took turns to go as lead risking the possibility of wet feet but we survived and hit the tarmac before conversation turned to much loved movies, quotes from Flash Gordon, Labyrinth, Bond movies littered liberally around and how many filthy film titles could you think of; Pete was pretty good as he shot from the hip a number of classic titles including ‘Shaving Ryan’s Privates’ before we hit a low when ‘Confessions of Window Cleaner’ and ‘On the Buses’ got a mention. Ryan was no slouch either in the humour department as the ‘teenage boy toilet humour’ dominated the miles.
This though provided respite from our travails across the swamp and as we headed into Parc Bryn Bach we were feeling okay and also finally starting to pull away a little from the group behind us. We pushed on using the momentum we’d developed using a combination of running and pretty swift hiking to cover the miles, stopping only for photo opportunities with the enormous remains of cars and vans that littered the South Wales countryside (somewhere is a photograph of me sat in one of these seats). It felt like we were starting to lose the light as well but actually it was simply getting overcast but regardless given our height we would manage to avoid head torches for several more hours.
However, mentally this was probably the most draining, the least interesting and the toughest section to get through and this was where my comrades were at their most valuable. We’d discussed whether we should stay together and agreed that given the bollock crushing nature of the course, the navigation and our general good feeling for one another that seeing this journey through together would be a good idea. So it was with a flourish that we each entered the third checkpoint and maintained our cheery approach…
‘It’s no North Sea Hijack’ I exclaimed to one of the wonderful volunteers as we began flirtation via Roger Moore. His riposte was composed of Roger Moore-esque fashion suggestions, ‘…cravat? perhaps teamed with a pastel coloured safari suit..?’ Ha!
More wonderful back and forth banter which in turn earned each of us a freshly BBQed delight. Delicious!
I had the peppered steak in a cheesy bap (because as Ryan said ‘everything tastes better with cheese’ (though I’m not sure he’d thought it through as I hear oral sex with a cheesy whiff is quite unpleasant) while my running buddies ate heartily of a pork belly bap.
Anyway after a few minutes of scoffing bacon frazzle & Jaffa cake sandwiches we all felt much better and we’d now reached about 29 miles of running or as it would turn out ‘halfway’! We doffed our caps to the awesome volunteers and bade them a fond farewell and headed once more into the Welsh Wilds!
It wasn’t far into the next section that another eating opportunity arose and as we approached the Co-op I offered the option of stopping for an ice-cream at the outer edge of Bargod. Pete chose the delicious flake cone, while I selected a strawberry cornetto and an Irn-Bru but Ryan decided to dip out of this in favour of a bit of a kit check and fix up. The cool slightly melting iced joy danced on my palette and I devoured this little treat as we continued on our journey.
Despite this little stop we had decided that we’d like to try and get through to the next checkpoint before full darkness consumed us but it was only a mile or two down the road as the trail darker that we decided that it was worth bringing illumination to the darkness we found ourselves in. Despite having now been running together for many hours we still had much to be upbeat about and even as the reality dawned on us that we were slowing down a bit we knew it was important to keep our spirits up as the night brings new and often unwanted challenges.
It was in this section that we started to pass considerable fly tipping which while it can offer amusement of it’s a car seat is actually quite disgusting and disappointing and really did spoil some of the views across the Welsh landscape as the sun disappeared from sight.
We were now fully at the mercy of the Welsh night and although it was calm I was glad for the companionship of Ryan and Pete. Humour dried up a little as we passed single file through rougher more overgrown trail – my exposed legs were taken quite the battering and I sliced myself many times across the legs, arms and head but we continued making progress and occasionally one of us would remember that this was the fun bus and shout ‘arse almighty’ or ‘you’re pulling my plankety plank’.
It was around here that Ryan’s heel blistering was becoming bad and my lack of Runderwear had gotten to my testicles which were now the size of watermelons, even Pete looked a little worse for wear, although clearly in the best shape of the three of us.
I’d chosen to make a hasty testicle hanger out of my ‘Anton’ Buff and despite his heel pain Ryan too pushed on and our power hiking was making good progress. If we could just avoid any more bracken and thorns we might just survive this! However, the race was turning against us and applying thumb screws we believed we’d left behind on the Beacons. More and more unpleasant undergrowth attacked us and conditions underfoot varied in quality so there was simply no respite from the challenge of completion.
The three of us pulled slowly into CP4 a while later to see a couple of very important things – the first was the availability of hot tea and pizza but also the pair of young ladies that we had been periodically running near since early on. Elise (one of the runners) looked in a pretty grim way and had apparently been lying down to try and get some life back inside her. We did the only thing we could which was offer some support and as much advice as our weary heads could work. Ryan though offered some caffeine soaked shot bloks and this seemed enough to get them ready for leaving. While they prepped we sat for a little while eating pizza and trying to regain the enthusiasm for the race. However, I was very aware that staying inside for a long period would bring about a DNF and so we pressed on and headed toward a narrow overgrown passage despite a local gentleman attempting to guide us off course.
As we stood looking over the map we saw the two ladies pass us by and knew to follow them. Sadly the route was now becoming a little bitty but there was still Caerphilly Mountain to conquer and I hoped for some interesting trails to run across – thankfully the trails did become suitably gnarly for a while and despite pain in all sorts of places we continued forward searching for what the next clip point. Pete was now mostly in charge of navigation, although I was keeping a very regular check on the GPX route to ensure we had a consensus for direction but wrong turns were few and far between as we headed to the final checkpoint. A minor blip meant that we came up a road rather than a trail for about 250 metres and nearly missed the checkpoint entirely but we simply wanted to continue on.
However, at the final checkpoint and at around 4.00am I got to see my fellow registration volunteer Sian – who looked as fresh as she had about 36hrs earlier! She was sensibly wrapped in a dry robe and upon looking me over realised who I was and came over to say hello. The volunteer team were as awesome as ever but with only six or seven miles left we needed very little and strode out from the CP pretty swiftly.
I won’t lie we looked in a pretty bad way by the time the sun came up, both Ryan and I had rusty bullet holes that you could have cooked eggs on, my testicles were on fire and we both had serious blister problems. Pete it looked like was suffering from cramp and was using the slower pace for regular stretching. We had all started to get a little grumpy too and the mood although never unpleasant was quieter and more sombre than it had been at any point in the night. However, it is fair to say that we all checked on each other – no man was being left behind and when the blisters under my feet burst the guys gave me the required time to steady myself and pick up a head of steam.
The hardest part here were not the uphills – in fact the minor uphills were a nice distraction – the main problem was the downhill to the riverside run home on the Taff Trail. Each of us struggled with this section in his own way but upon making it down we made the best effort we could to get it over the line without being overtaken further.
However, in the final few hundred metres we were overtaken by a couple of ladies – we all agreed that fighting for a placing really wasn’t worth the agony and we crossed line just as we had travelled it – together.
The route was an interesting one, the best of it was at the start and in the first 25 miles but that’s not to say the second half didn’t have appealing features because it did. The route was also incredibly tough. It is fair to suggest that this would be one of the tougher 50 milers you will face in the United Kingdom – it’s also fair to say that you’ll almost certainly need to do some extra miles – the route claims to be about 53 miles but my GPS file and that of those around me was more like 57/58 miles which is a significant percentage increase on the 50 that are advertised in the title of the race. However, none of this detracts from the fact that the route really is very special, albeit not one of the fastest around. I felt, having never really explored South Wales in any great depth, that this tour of the Brecon Beacons and the road into Cardiff gave me a desire to search for more in the region and I’m now very much looking forward (with a hint of trepidation) to The Rebellion in November.
Great t-shirt and pretty, good quality medal – do you need any more?
What a holy trinity we proved to be. Myself, Ryan and Pete (I hope for them as much as me) proved to be a great match for banging out some exciting miles in South Wales and thank you very much for all your support. It was my honour to run alongside you and I hope to do so again soon. I hope you both conquer your awesome upcoming challenges – the TDS and the RoF.
I’ve had the good fortune to meet some amazing volunteers over the years I’ve been doing races but the guys at the SW50 were amongst the best. Special mention must go to Joe and Sian who I worked with during the registration but also to the guys who made me laugh so heartily at CP2 and the bearded chap with his Roger Moore comments and the hug at the finish line).
Top notch and in every respect – if you decide to run this then it will feel smooth and well oiled and even during the bit of volunteering that I did I got the impression that Joe and the organising team were all over it like the proverbial ‘car bonnet’. Each of the CPs was well drilled and they handled the runners with respect – which hopefully they received back in genuine thanks. Ten out of ten!
Value for money
£70 for this? a bargain in any book – this included the camping, the transport to the start, tech shirt and the tremendous organisation. I would heartily recommend this race if you are looking for a proper ballbuster, it might not be for the novice runners and it might not even be for some of the seasoned ultra runners but there are a huge amount of you out there that would love this.
Caught by a farmer: ‘Shot or bummed which way do you fancy dying?’ I think I suggested shot while being ‘bummed’ as I really wanted to avoid the farmers ‘cum face’. In truth he was a very helpful man and all we needed to do was show a little humility for our minor mistake.
The button mushroom:‘Does your cock shrivel up like a button mushroom during an ultra?’ asked Pete. Insightful was my first thought, however, both Ryan and I simply reached down to our respective ankles to scratch the end of ours to give him the answer!
My comrades: Ryan and Pete, two men I’d never met before who were simply amazing. Let’s put it this way we didn’t need the sheep that night 😉
Fixing my bollocks: the poor young ladies who were running next to us for various bits possibly having to witness me fixing my beloved Anton buff round my testicles on more than one occasion.
The things we learned about each other: Needless to say one of us shared too much but the ‘titwank’ story and the tale of the ‘sensible car purchase’ will be retold many times I suspect
The Flintstones: Being outvoted on the Betty/Wilma debate and just how manly is Fred Flintstone? I swear neither Ryan or Pete understood the real ‘Wilma’ or that Barney was a probably a sensitive caring lover for Betty.
Favourite insult: I like ‘cockwomble’, I’m a fan of ‘used cockbag’, ‘well I don’t think you can beat cunt’. I shan’t tell you who said what.
Upon finishing: Joe asks, ‘can we get you anything?’ ‘Hookers,’ I replied. ‘I think all the rugby guys have gone home sadly…’
This isn’t my favourite ultra – it would have to go a long way to unseat the SainteLyon and the Skye Trail Ultra – but that said this was an amazing race put on by people who really know what they’re doing and I would urge you to take a look at this for next year – you may well decide it’s not for you but for those that it is for will come away having being battered and bruised but feeling elated. So instead of signing up for the same old, same old maybe give this a go – I did and it really paid off.
As for my race? Well I was a couple of hours slower than I had hoped but I had a great time with two amazing guys and lots of other awesome runners. South Wales 50 is a race that will live long in the memory and although the 100 might be off the table for next year I suspect I will be back to give it a crack sooner rather than later and who knows maybe I will end up taking on the 100 next year.
Post race? I’ve eaten all the biscuits and my testicles have calmed down but the blisters on my feet are some of the worst I’ve had in ages and will take a few more days to heal – but the pain is well worth it.
It was January and I’d just learned that there was no space at the Pilgrim Challenge, I was a little annoyed at myself for not having booked in earlier but hey-ho. I therefore did what I always do and looked on the ahotu website for race listings and there right in front of me was the UTBCN. Interestingly I knew that Lynne, Anna and Nia) family of the GingaNinja were soon to be back full time in Barcelona and so I suggested we go see them at the same time as me taking part in what looked like a pretty tough ultra marathon.
As I was paying for flights the GN agreed and our hosts confirmed that it would be okay to crash out at their place for a few days and visit.
I entered and booked flights within minutes of confirmation that I had all the required green lights.
It seemed then like no time at all until I was stood at the back of the start line for the UTBCN with no expectations other than to start.
Although my training had been going reasonably well I really hadn’t looked at the fine print for this race and only noticed how up and down it all was in the days leading up to the event. However, as I put myself up for harder and harder races this felt like a good starting point for the real ultra season opener.
I managed to pass kit check by the skin of my teeth as my brand new Petzl Actik failed literally moments before the start line (more on that later) but I had both a spare light (low-lumens) and extra batteries. I dipped into the starting area and looked ahead to the large inflatable and the hundreds of bronzed runners ahead of me. At this moment I felt very out of place with my milky white skin and too many mars bars physique but it was too late to think about this as the countdown roared into life and we were sent on our way from Begues to …well Begues.
And as we left this small town just outside Barcelona I felt no fear, the rainstorm the previous night had abated (annoying as I’d reworked my kit for wet and cold weather) and the race felt like home and I knew that once I reached the trail this was set to be a bone rattling humdinger of a race.
From the off it was uphill, downhill but sadly nothing in her lady’s chamber! The UTBCN felt like there were no flat sections, you were either going up or you were going down and that was were the fun was to be had.
Over the 100km course there was nearly 5000 metres of upward elevation and it felt like it! I’d thought that my experience at Harris Extreme would adequately prepare me for this but it was a very different beast.
The nice thing about the route was that the elevation came via a huge variety of surfaces, there was mud, gravel trail, technical rocky trail, great big wet sections for that full foot dunking and even some tarmac (for those who like it simple). And each surface type tested you in new and often unexpected ways.
Much like the variable surfaces each of the climbs brought with it a unique view, a need to adapt your running style and a reminder to keep your wits about you. No two uphills were the same and no two downhills were either. This was a course that could easily chew you up and spit you out if you showed it anything less than total respect.
The run to checkpoint one was filled with so much of the above and at 16km it felt like a great leg warmer, the day was still cool when I powered up the hill to the tables of food of drink but I noted that I had drained my Hydrapak 350ml bottle as well as the 150ml bottle – despite it not being a classically hot Spanish day there was heat in the running and so I filled my supplies, drank Coca Cola (yes the real stuff) and pressed on.
Sadly for me the weather started to turn on the run up to checkpoint two and the UTBCN quickly warmed up to a something more akin to a summer ultra. I’d opted for heavier summer weight kit and carrying spares of almost everything as I expected to be out anything up to 24hrs and wasn’t sure how quickly I could get through the unknown terrain. With the change in weather though my pack, which was heavy, simply felt like a drain on my own reserves. However, I made some changes to how I was wearing kit – removing buffs, visor on, sunglasses on, top up on sun cream and ensure I was eating as well as drinking enough.
I started passing through checkpoints at a decent pace and anywhere that running was an option I did, even the inclines as I knew that many of the downhills were very rocky with only the most nimble of speedgoats being able to hammer their way through them.
With less than 7.5 of the 24 permitted hours gone I passed through the halfway point kicked on as fast as I could knowing that the next sections would start to get trickier. I passed over some very steep up and downhills that had been assaulted by mud and rain and was slow going as your feet needed care to pass through unharmed.
However, despite the harshness of the terrain I was about to hit the 67km checkpoint in great time and with 33km to go I felt strong and assured in my running.
It was clear to me I’d thrown caution to the wind in the cooler temperatures and had leapt into the second half with a great aplomb and hurtled through the kilometres looking to make up as much ground on the course before nightfall set in. At the 67km checkpoint I placed on my pathetic emergency head torch and headed out and less than a kilometre later the sun finally dipped behind the beautiful northern Spain landscape and I was in the dark.
My problems now accelerated.
As mentioned, at the start line about 10.5hrs earlier, my brand new head torch had died, new batteries wouldn’t solve it and nor would prayer. So I was left with my backup head torch, the Petzl e-lite, which while superb kit is not a replacement for the Actik that was supposed to light my way.
Sadly I could barely see a metre ahead of me and the trail was even more dangerous in the dark than it was in the sunshine, over the 4km I ran in the dark I stumbled a dozen times. I tried following the light of other runners but this was of no use (and I couldn’t really do that for the final 28km) and so at 72km I sat at the checkpoint raging at my head torch manufacturer (Petzl) and at myself for I knew I had to pull out. I sat at the checkpoint for about 20 minutes before I was willing to DNF racking my brain for a solution, attempting to get my main light working but it wasn’t to be.
A very sad end to a great race that I was actually running well!
Date: March 2017
Terrain: Very variable trail
Tough Rating: 3.5/5
Route As for the race route itself well that was beautiful, with stunningly lush landscapes in all directions. It took you high above Barcelona and it took you down to the beach, what more could you ask for? The course itself was absolutely brutal in places and highly runnable in others, i think it’s fair to say it lends itself to local runners or mountain goats who know what to expect but any decent trail runner would really enjoy the magic of this race.
Organisation and support The organisation was, I found, superb with multi lingual checkpoint staff, aid stations were all incredibly well stocked and tasty. The number collection was very easy (at a giant sports store in Barcelona) and it felt like a very inclusive race and drew people from all over the world and it wouldn’t surprise me if they, like me, would be very happy to go back and run this again. It’s fair to say that the support and organisation would be a key factor in luring me back for a crack at finishing this race. There was no of the manic feel that races like the UTMB have, it was so much more relaxed (but admittedly significantly smaller) but the intimacy and friendliness that was felt throughout the event makes you want to go back.
Additionally the website with a full English language version was much appreciated and easy to use.
Awards and Goodies For finishers there was a medal and a nice one, I did not get one as I only completed the LTBCN route and not the UTBCN route. However, I did get a goody bag which contained lots of lovely little food nuggets, a lovely neck gaiter/buff, really tasty t-shirt and some other random bits that will all get used.
Value for money? €95 for 100km? or you can downgrade elements like not getting a medal, t-shirt, etc and taking a cheaper package. I chose the all inclusive which pre-race I had thought was a little expensive but actually when you look at what you get, the stunning route, the amazing organisation, etc then actually this race looks like good value because it is. When you compare to say ‘The Race to the Stones’ or ‘The Wall’ or any OCR race then this really is good value and even when compared to its European race rivals this one stands up pretty well.
Lynne, Anna and Nia I mentioned earlier the people we stayed with, family to the GingaNinja and ultimately without them this wouldn’t have been nearly as possible – so my eternal thanks.
Petzl The failure of my brand new (fully tested) head torch before the race is unforgivable, I had to stop because of a failure created by someone else and that smarts. At the time of writing I’ve had no response from the company despite a number of messages (none of them abusive) but perhaps they simply don’t care about their customers – something to think about when you’re next considering a head torch purchase.
Conclusions This is a great event and if you looking for an easy to reach, tough as old boots ultra in nearby Europe then this should be high on your list. The course was beautiful, the scenery stunning and the atmosphere upbeat. I doubt this race is on the radar of many of you but it should be and I hope you’ll at least look up the UTBCN for future consideration.
There was a huge doubt in my mind as to whether I’d turn up to the start line of the Amersham Ultra. The reason? Well on race morning, having been upended by a nervous dog a week earlier, I was still carrying the bulk of a groin strain and the arse end of a hamstring pull having refused to DNF! I really shouldn’t have rolled up to the school hall at 8.15 on Saturday 11 March but I did and I’m very pleased that I did.
Let’s do the short version for those of you desperate to know how it was… basically if you enjoy the following; oozy mud, an undulating route, a great atmosphere and beautiful countryside then the Amersham Ultra is for you. If you don’t then I wonder how you got this far 🙂
And now to the rambling version of events. The start was located inside a school hall which, as you might imagine, brought about a bevy of long repressed memories. XNRG had arranged things for a swift registration process and there was a registration desk, T-shirt collection point, a tea and cake table, Apex Sport and some information about Humanity Direct (the charity who would be benefitting from our entry fee and running).
I was joined in the hall by the usual eclectic mix of runners and of course by UltraBaby and the GingaNinja. UltraBaby sadly was a bit ill and was mildly more manic than normal, which was to the amusement of some and annoyance to others – but ho-hum! However, it’s always a delight for me to be waved off to the two ladies in my life but my beloved hound had decided to sit this one out and he remained in bed – catching up on the 5Live I suspect.
Clocking in at around 30 miles this is at the baby end of the ultra running world but that should not detract from it being a very worthwhile event. I know from having done the first half of Country to Capital around these parts that there can be some tricky sections and that the Amersham Ultra while advertised as ‘for everyone’ should not be underestimated.
And with that thought and a few well chosen words from the organisers ringing in my ears we set off.
The course it is fair to say is mighty, undoubtedly runnable for the most part despite the mud and varied, it’s fair to say that there is a bit of tarmac involved but actually rather than me moan about this I’ll instead say that this was the connective tissue between the trail sections – it felt like a well considered course.
Lots of the runners set out at a good pace even though we were the 9.00am (slower) group and overall there was a genuinely positive atmosphere that passed through the groups. For a change I was mostly keeping myself to myself, trying to focus on the running rather than the chit-chat and this was working wonders except for some over heating!
By about mile 3 I realised I was wearing one layer too many and by mile 5 I was over heating. I stopped, threw off my tops and discarded one to the bottom of my much loved original UD PB vest. Now in just a t-shirt I felt much livelier and set about catching the dozen or so people who had overtaken me.
Still feeling strong I did indeed catch the runners who had overtaken me a little before checkpoint 1 but I was also aware that I could feel my hamstring and if I didn’t back off I might not make it to checkpoint 2. I had decided that I would use my ’90 second checkpoint rule’ for this race and so gulped down some orange squash and buttered malt loaf before hurling myself into the void of the second section.
I’ll make a minor tangent here to mention the truly brilliant aid station and checkpoint crews. As mentioned this is a baby distance ultra but the checkpoints and the runners were treated with the utmost respect – good, well prepared food with a good range available. The crews were upbeat, focused and never missed a beat. Absolutely superb – I understand why XNRG are so highly regarded in the ultra community.
Having now slowed a little bit I could start to think about the problem that had been pestering me since near the start and that was the epic ‘gut rot’. Thankfully I was a) still capable of running and b) fully armed with poo roll and I took full advantage of a hilly wooded area to relieve some of the enormous pressure that had been building. Relieved but with more than 10 minutes lost I set off again but noting I had managed to slice open the lower part of my shins and sweat was seeping into the open wounds.
For the third time in the race I stopped, this time to clean up the slices, then off again.
With my drama quotient filled I arrived into checkpoint 2, refilled my water and ploughed on. CP2 to CP3 would be the longest of the sections but at about 14km still was reasonably short and there was more fun to be had, although I know I got lost a couple of times which didn’t help my time but it did offer me some discreet cover for a second delivery of epic ‘gut rot’. I’ll be honest I was feeling pretty ill. However, relieved, I once again pressed on despite feeling that either my guts or my hamstring injury were going to get the better of me.
Despite my troubles I couldn’t help but delight in the route – it was for the most part very special. I met several runners throughout the day indicated that this was a ‘warm-up for the SDW50’. For me, being honest and having done the SDW50 a couple of times, Amersham was more fun, more exciting and better looking.
Anyway, with checkpoint 3 reached I had about 10 miles to go. I gulped down some lovely cola and hit the afterburner hoping to get round in as respectable a time as possible. Sadly this section brought my final trip to natures toilet (and the use of my last tissue) but I was ‘cleaned out’ to use an appropriate gambling term.
Feeling better than I had for much of the race but increasing pain through my hamstring I knew I should stop at the final checkpoint but I’d loved this route so much that I was determined to see it through.
More lovely trails greeted me as I wound my way to the finish and a glorious climb into Amersham was just reward for my efforts. Here I was joined by the delightful Sharon and I delighted in her company as we inspired each other to the finish line. As we turned into the final field and back into the school we looked around a little lost and some kindly supporters waved us towards them, we were going to make it! I could now see the finish a few hundred metres away and I turned to Sharon and said ‘end of the cones we give it a bit of welly’ and we did – crossing the line to the same beautiful support we had received all the way round.
I feel as though I’ve already discussed my love for this route, it was a wonderfully eclectic mix of challenges that with effort could be achieved by anyone. For those that might question the value of shorter distance routes I’d say that what it lacked in big distance it provided in character and challenge – one not to be underestimated but one you’ll fall in love with. Recommended, especially in the earlier part of the year when conditions underfoot make it ‘real’ trail!
There was a truly delightful medal and an awesome t-shirt that perfectly matches my new down jacket. In addition there was tea, coffee and cakes at the beginning with free photographs thrown in just for good measure (I’m told there were prizes too but I’m too old and slow to win one of those!). You really would struggle to criticise the goodies that were heaped on this race. Excellent.
So having discussed my mid race gut rot I’ll briefly mention the horses on the course. Somewhere between the start and checkpoint one a huge herd of horses ambled politely around either side of the track, others had run through and the track itself was clear. I slowed as I approached and when they got too close let them wander past me, then it happened, like clouds on a mountain – they surrounded me.
I nearly ‘shat’ myself.Inching forward more horses came to face me down, several surly looking beasts snorting as they strode past me and then I saw my escape, a decent sized gap and I walked sensibly to the edge of the horses.
Clear(ish). I turned as I exited their thrall and what I saw next was terrifying – scores and scores of horses in a stampede across where I had been standing seconds earlier.
Had I been in there I’d have been dead but thankfully (for me at least) I wasn’t. Note to self, two races, two weeks, two incidents involving horses – a pattern?
Charity Perhaps the nicest thing about the Humanity Direct Amersham Ultra was the charitable element. Your £48 bought you much more than a race as XNRG were donating all of the entry fee to Humanity Direct who do amazing work with those that need it most in Africa.
The race organisers, I can only assume, absorb the costs of putting on this event (medals, t-shirts, food, logistics, etc) in order that this worthwhile charity benefits from such a spectacular event. It’s fitting to say that I’m in genuine awe of the guys at XNRG and can understand were the excellent reputation they have comes from.
Organisation Perfect, if anything went wrong then you didn’t see it – this was a very knowledgeable team delivering a great event.
Volunteers Having volunteered a few times at different races I know a little of what it takes to support runners and it’s fair to say that the XNRG volunteers and teams know a lot more than I do. Everyone seemed so well catered for at the start, at the checkpoints and at the finish. Every single person I met under the XNRG banner was really outstanding. Top notch.
Value for money £48? Smallish field but never lonely, beautiful and challenging route, great medal and perhaps the best organisation I’ve seen at an ultra marathon with the added bonus of the money going to Humanity Direct. This to me is a real bargain and one of the best value for money ultras around – no it’s not £1 a mile or less but there are some very significant mitigating reasons. Everyone should be adding this to their list!
As you’ve read I can’t praise this race enough. For myself I ran better than expected but not as well as I would have liked given my hamstring and ‘crotchal’ region proving that this was perhaps a bit too far after the previous weeks exploits (read about last weeks race here). What I liked was that at no point did I become bored by the surroundings, at no point did I really want the race to end and thankfully it wasn’t a brutaliser. Instead of brutalising it was an excellent test of your marathon pace over tough conditions and a few spare miles to give you a fright. What the Humanity Direct Amersham Ultra gave me though was a big dollop of confidence to face down the UTBCN in two weeks time (subject to injury clearing – wish me luck!)
All in all, top marks for a top event, check it out!
There’s less than a week left to enter the Skye Ultra Trail. You might be thinking I have some vested interest in you running it, well you’re wrong – if you run it that’s more competition for my finishing position and to the amount of cake I get to eat – but I still want you to come along and race it. It’s not a big race, it’s small and intimate and all the better for it I reckon.
Here’s why I decided I wanted to race it and I think these reasons will prove more than adequate to have you reaching for your debit card to join in…
It’s a small, intimate looking race.
It’s in a remote location (Isle of Skye) on a little island off the Scottish coast.
It has unbelievable scenery.
If, like me, you’re English you can take advantage of the United Kingdom staying together and say thanks in person to the lovely Scottish people for staying the union.
You can eat Haggis Melts until you explode at Cafe Sia in Broadford.
The Isle of Skye has the, now disused, airfield seen at the beginning of Flash Gordon – you can go and re-create a famous scene from a classic film (I know I will be), or you can admire where Prometheus was shot further north on the island.
You get to run in a 74 mile race from the top of the island to the bottom.
You’ll be supporting a small beautifully formed race and help ensure it returns year after year after year.
You get to meet me and see me cry my way through some of the UK’s finest trails.
This is the best thing you’ll ever do with the late May Bank Holiday weekend.
So don’t delay, Jeff, the Race Director is closing the entries so he can, presumably, sensibly prepare for the people he knows he has. You don’t want to miss out on this!
I’d recommend viewing the Sage Clegg hike on the Isle of Skye to get a feel about the race you could be running – the video is here – see you there hopefully.
Enter here or search ‘Skye Ultra Trail’ on Facebook – you won’t regret it.
On Sunday morning I took the short trip from Kent to Essex to take part in what I had heard was a stunning little ultra marathon – the St. Peter’s Way from Challenge Running.
Having started the year with Country to Capital and adding in a lovely 10 mile heavy trail at Vigo I felt that this ultra was well within my capability and in fact I was aiming to run something around the 8hr mark for St. Peter’s Way. Training had been going okay for a little while but a series of misadventures stretching back through to early February meant the training had tailed off in favour or trying to get to the start line.
Therefore I loaded my kit in the car on Sunday and set off, two bags – one, my Aquapac wet and dry bag with a ton of warm clothing and the other my Ultimate Directions vest with enough running kit to sink a small battleship. The advice had been that a base layer would be needed and also some waterproof trousers, this though had the affect of making my vest heavier and bigger than I would have liked. However, the benefit of the UD pack is that it stays small and it felt as comfortable as ever when I did the test fitting in Ongar.
As I arrived at the car park where everything was being co-ordinated I noticed all the runners wandering around, many of them congregating up near the check in and bag drop. I joined the queue and had my kit checked (for the first time ever in an ultra), grabbed my number and then headed back to the car to wait for the start and also to cough my guts up – fearing that if anyone saw me hacking up a weeks worth of phlegm they would politely refuse me entry to the race.
Having previously run the White Cliffs 50 and Thames Gateway 100 with the now defunct Saxon Shore Ultra Trails I noted how outrageously well organised the St. Peter’s Way Ultra was in comparison. Lindley had provided excellent pre-race communication and on the day he made for an excellent orator of what was expected from the runners and what they could expect. We were then dismissed and had a few minutes to chat with the other runners or mentally prepare for the upcoming 45 miles. At this point despite my chest infection I felt pretty okay about the race and that really enthusiastic race environment was driving me forward. My OH looked on, probably in horror, hoping that I was going to do the sensible thing and withdraw but she knew me better than that.
The race then simply started with a few cheery ‘good lucks’ and a few laughs about the impending mud fest we faced. In retrospect the start could be considered a bit of anti climax as I ended up walking the first 100metres but this simply gave us time to compare notes about previous races and introduce ourselves to other runners that we might later rely on for support and encouragement.
As we turned into the first field my beloved Hoka One One took the first of their muddy soakings and you could tell this course was likely to drain all the energy from your legs. Myself and the other runners stumbled through the first few steps until we got into our stride, watching the super ultra royalty at the front of the course moving faster and further than most of us could dream of.
We had been warned that the course didn’t have any super challenging hills in it but that it would be constantly undulating, this proved very much to be the case. And despite not really being able to get an adequate grip anywhere I was making steady but slowish progress. Thankfully I could also feel the warmth of the day on my face and it looked like we might get perfect running weather – just as we had for Country to Capital.
The course turned out to be surprisingly well labelled and the written instructions in combination with my Suunto Ambit 2 powered map I was sure would see me home and this was where you realised that Challenge Running really did know what they were doing, Nicki, one of the runners I would travel with later in the race said of Lindley that, ‘he knows what ultra runners want, because he is one himself’. This very much came across in the care with which he (and his team?) had prepared every final detail.
As I ambled across the route, over taking a few, being over taken by a few, I met (at a bit of junction) a sprightly young runner named Mike, I say young he was a few years older than I but you would never have known it. It was about mile 3 and we discovered that we had a few things in common and, as you do, got chatting about life, loves and the art of running and our common ground and the differences between us made for enjoyable conversation over the next few miles. I learnt of his racing battle with his wife and he discovered about the stupidity of my seven ultra marathon challenge, we discussed food – Mike favouring Soreen and me favouring Kinder chocolate. I explained to Mike that my chest infection was making my journey tough and that at no point should I hold him up but despite my increasing anxiety and shortness of breath we reached CP1 in good spirits.
We rolled up past the Viper pub to be welcomed by a decent troop of supporters and my OH who was supposed to have gone home. I was grateful to see her and we had big hugs and kisses as well as chowing down on all the goodies at the stop. Yummy. Challenge Running had an excellent range of food and drink – both savoury and sweet and at one point I had both jelly beans and chicken nuggets in my mouth at the same time.
Mike and I left CP1 and headed off to CP2, the course remained challenging but not impossible and our navigation was good, therefore we were able to make decent time and even some of the hills proved insignificant as we thrust ourselves forward – looking back only to make sure the other was okay. We made other running friends as we went about our business and without too much fuss (and other light sprint to the checkpoint) we made it to CP2. Mike was still looking excellent but I knew I was already in trouble and so after some friendly banter and a piece of delicious raspberry and white chocolate cake we both headed out again. We trundled up the road and back onto the trail but I knew that I needed to slow down and so rather than hold Mike back I just let him slip away – hoping that I’d catch him at the end so we could keep in contact post race.
As we crossed a main road over a bridge I made light work of this, grateful for the change of pace but then slowed to allow Mike past and then watched as he ploughed onwards. I then trudged up the next field and down and around – following my GPS and for the first time, just as I lost my running partner, I lost my way. I had come out of the field and the group in front of me had gone. I couldn’t see them.
Looking to the instructions and my GPS for support provided little help and when looking most vulnerable a gentleman with a dog called to me and advised that I was a few miles out of the way and that other runners had been slicing through the field a little way back but that I could get back to the St Peter’s Way with a left and right turn and I shouldn’t add too much to my route. I was grateful to him and as was the chap behind me who had also made the same mistake as I. However, within a few minutes we found ourselves on the back end of a housing estate, caked in mud and proving something of a shock to most of the locals who were out washing their cars and brushing their driveways. The Tarmac made for easier going for about a quarter mile but I knew that we would soon be back on the trail and there it was, a right turn back on to the main path to Bradwell on Sea.
CP2 – CP3 was probably the hardest section, it was badly cut up, it had a few hills, it was covered (in places) in horse shit and it offered some amazing opportunities to fall over and get covered in every kind of slime imaginable. It was starting to take no prisoners. The first 20 miles had been the warm up, the next 20 it seemed where going to give us a bit of a roasting and with conditions worsening and a strong wind growing, it looked this ultra would prove worthy of the 2UTMB points that it came with.
I slogged my way up the final section, cursing my burning chest and beating it like Tarzan in an effort to move the phlegm but nothing was working and when finally I came across the Tarmac road into the village and home of CP3 I gave my now usual sprint to the line. I also committed my usual acts of pseudo flirting with the volunteers and ate as much as I could manage, but with a worsening condition in my chest and throat this wasn’t as much as it should have been.
I had sent an SMS to my OH explaining the severity of my chest infection and that I was struggling for breath and at this point she suggested I stop- something I had been considering for a little while and when I saw that the next section was nearly 10 miles I almost handed my number in, but then I remembered that no matter how bad I was physically my mental strength was good and so after a few laughs at CP3 I pushed on.
The next 10 miles were much easier than the previous 10 and included lots of lovely photographic moments across the shipyards and in small Essex villages – the kind that Essex doesn’t get enough credit for. Truth to tell I was starting to simply enjoy the process of being a bit of tourist in Essex and allowing history and beauty to seep over me.
It was about 3.45pm when I finally stopped, briefly, and threw on my waterproof, even though it wasn’t raining the day had taken several turns for the worse and I wanted I make sure that I was warm enough to complete the distance. This precaution proved to be the right choice and in a new found warmth I also found new energy and was able to battle through my own fatigue. I dipped onto the road that would leap to CP4 and slowly made quite scary progress against the flow of the traffic. With my renewed vigour I pushed into the checkpoint, gave in my number and was grateful for both the stop and the chat with the marshall’s – even the topic of Mike Jones came up, the man who had run Saxon Shore Ultra Trails and it was very nice to be remembered, maybe that’s why I love the ultra community – people remember you! I digress…
I now knew that with only 8 miles to go I wasn’t going to give up. If I gave up now I would be transported to the finish and there I would be witness to all the other runners in their finery and me, without a medal – this would not happen. About 3 miles into the final section, mainly speed walking I came across the very lovely Nicki (mentioned earlier) and between us I hope that we managed to keep each other going at a pace that meant we would make the 6.30pm bus back to the start. Nicki was 100% focused on making the distance and I found her tenacity infectious to the point that our speed walking was not a million miles from 5miles per hour. The dark was now setting in around us and we finally reached Bradwell-on-Sea and memories poured into my head of crawling through the mud last year at Xtreme Beach but today it wasn’t the mud that was in my face it was the battering winds from the sea. We ploughed on through the wind – sometimes behind us, sometimes at the side of us and I could feel my energy ebbing away and with less than a mile to go. I called out to Nicky and told her I needed to back off a bit and she should push on as she going amazingly well.
And then it happened, probably less than 250 metres to go – I felt the full force of blood pumping in me and I started running and then as we crossed the final stretch of blackness I could feel my feet sprinting. 150metres to go, I went the wrong way round the finish line – I hurled out my apologies to Nicky who had gotten me to this point and then I flew forward in relatively full flight sprint, taking my congratulations and medal from Lindley himself.
I was done, in so many ways.
After the crossing of the line I was able to collect my beautiful Tshirt, my drop bag, food and also catch up with Mike who had finished about 45 minutes ahead of me. It was a wonderful location to finish an ultra at and despite my haze I was in amazement at how wonderful an experience this was.
So to sum up.
The route? Bloody tough, but hugely rewarding, very scenic and an exploration of some of the best bits of Essex. The way is pretty well marked and it was harder to get lost than I thought, add in that the lovely people of Essex provided much needed support and in some cases – directions.
The Volunteers and Marshals? A race is only as good as the people who line the route and in this race the volunteers and marshals were amazing. They were fun, helpful, dedicated and interacted with us. I’m sure people came through grumpy and tired and deflated or happy or whatever and you know that these guys were the ones who made it possible for them to keep going. I have nothing but praise for every single one of you
The Food? The food was a nice mix of sweet and savoury, everything that a runner could possibly want and the chicken nuggets were a delight! Jelly beans, gummy bears, the various cakes, lots of drink types and never a shortage.
The Finish Line? I’ve had some great finish lines over the last three years, running next to the Liver Building, crossing the Tyne at Gateshead and this one was right up there. Not only have I never been so happy to see a finish line but there was something eerily beautiful about the church lit only by head torches and a few lamps – it was truly beautiful.
The Bling? Brilliant, I love the bling – see picture, it was bold, red and the same as the symbol I had been following all day long. I wore it for the whole of the rest of Sunday night and this morning I looked at again and relived those final moments as it went around my neck.
Finally Do this race, do it next year and the year after and every other year, this is an amazing race, with amazing organisation and a team that really know what they are doing. I’ll attempt to race 7 ultras this year and I’m not sure I’ll run a more brilliant one than this. I know one thing though and that is I’d like to go back and run it without the chest infection as my one disappointment was my time.
Next for me is the March Virtual Run and then South Downs Way 50. Can’t wait.
It’s now December 2nd and yesterday was a rest day, my first rest day since I began Govember. I enjoyed the Sunday, I got up early, didn’t look at my bike, took only a cursory glance towards my bike, kicked off my running shoes, did a hint of housework, built some new furniture and even ascend the loft ladder to get down the Christmas decorations for my OH. The Good Samaritan in me helped an old lady to use her DVD player and I ordered more Christmas gifts because it is better to give than to receive. That was my Sunday, that was my rest day.
As I write this though I am covered in sweat and shivering on a late running train from Kent and it’s 6.30am, I’ve just run my fast morning session. Govember may well be over but the effect of sustained running means I’m now better equipped for December training where I can begin the preparation for my year of ultra running. Govember gave me the following results (roughly as I measures my routes and ran roughly the same distance every day) Running: 220miles Swimming: 6miles Cycling: 55miles. December will be very different, I won’t be running every day – although I will exercise most days and there will be more distance running (lsr and b2b). This is probably the most prepared I have ever felt for an ultra, which is a good start and it looks like my body is holding up to the demands I’m placing on it – or perhaps I’m getting better to grips with what it means to train more sensibly.
What I can conclude though is that December has hit the ground running – literally and as long as the festive break doesn’t provide too much of an interruption I should more than be fine when Country to Capital comes calling next month.
Three ultra marathons in 2013 (five in for 2014 so far) and the thing I really enjoy is the little nuggets of advice you get from fellow runners. Below are some of things they have suggested that I consider as an ultra marathoner to be worth listening to.
1. Walk the big hills
2. Walk the big hills as quickly as you can
3. Drink before you are thirsty
4. Eat real food
5. Prepare physically, do the miles
6. Prepare mentally, think positive
7. Train at night, prepare to feel lonely
8. Keep your feet dry as long as possible
9. Get kit you’re comfortable with, cheap, expensive, branded, white label – just make sure you’re happy with it and make sure it’s fully tested and fully prepared
10. Make friends as you run, chatting to make those miles drift away and if one of you struggles the others might offer words of encouragement
11. Know your route, maps, recces, GPS files (in my case my iPad mini has been known to go with me)
12. Always remember this is endurance and not a race, it’s more about completing it than sprinting it
13. Run your own race and own pace and don’t go out too quick
14. A crew can be invaluable, if you have people willing to join you as support on the course then take it
15. Be prepared to give up! Sometimes the best thing you can do is stop, injury, exhaustion or mental fatigue can kill an ultra. Not completing an ultra doesn’t make you a failure, it probably makes you a hero – knowing when to stop is as important as knowing when to push on.
I’m sure there’s lots more advice, contradictory advice too in some cases, but these bits are things I broadly agree with. I’m looking forward to Country to Capital to pick up a few more useful things. One day I’m hoping someone will advise me about how to read a map…